Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/October 1896/The Self and its Derangements

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IN this and my succeeding paper I intend to take up a group of phenomena which involve some of the most perplexing of psychological and metaphysical questions. There is no problem that can be of greater interest to us as human beings than that which concerns the nature of my self, my origin, and my destiny. Of my origin and my destiny exact Science is not yet in a position to say much, and of my nature and constitution she knows little more. The greater interest therefore attaches to those cases in which the consciousness of self seems to be disordered, and, although we are far from a complete comprehension of them, we can go far enough to show that they present phenomena which are closely akin to those which we have been examining.

We may set aside at the outset the notion that the real self is an immaterial, invisible, indestructible something called mind or soul in which my mental states inhere. Whether anything of the kind exists or not I do not know; if it does, we know nothing of it, and it is not of the least significance except as a symbol for the indestructibility of the conscious self. The only self in which I have interest is the self that feels, endures, hopes, and the only self I can know is the self that is manifested in consciousness.

Setting aside, then, this notion of the self as mind or soul apart from consciousness, there remains as the object of inquiry consciousness as we know it. In my first three papers (December, 1895, January and February-, 1896) I have given my reasons for thinking that we may conceive of it as a web containing manifold and constantly shifting strands. Sensations of all kinds, some vivid and some obscure, memories, anticipations, emotions, and deliberate volitions succeed one another in bewildering confusion. Yet at any given moment this apparent confusion is in reality a system the form and constitution of which is determined by laws as inflexible as any that rule in the physical world.

What, then, is my self? Is it merely another name for the whole? Or are there parts of this ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria which are parts of my self in a more special sense than the others?

I think there are. In the first place, and in the broadest sense of the word self, all those sensations which go to make up my consciousness of my body as distinguished from the sensations which I regard as springing from the outer world are peculiarly mine. The appearance of my body from without, the double sensations that arise from contact of part with part, but especially the vague sensations that are always pouring in from every muscle and joint, from the heart, lungs, stomach, and intestines, these all blend into a confused mass which forms the background or stage upon which the more distinct elements that are supplied by the special senses play their parts. Any changes in this mass I feel as changes in my self. Emotions and moods, and the indefinable difference between the feeling of health and the feeling of disease spring from obscure changes in it, but I feel them as changes in my self.

But with reflection comes a tendency to narrow the meaning of the word self. Who has not gazed in the mirror at what others call his self until the sense of opposition between the real self and that at which he was looking became so intense that he turned away almost frightened and glad to sink again into the old familiar sense of unity with his body? The more I reflect the less does my body seem important to me. I am the inner life of thought. Most of my thoughts I acknowledge as truly mine, and most of the deeds that spring out of them I recognize as belonging to me. But occasionally a thought appears toward which a sense of strangeness arises—it seems none of mine. Possibly because it is so much better than my usual thoughts that it seems like a breath from a higher world, possibly because it is so wicked that I am almost tempted to believe it comes from a devil, possibly merely because it is insistent and does not go when I bid it. So of the impulses and desires that control me. Most of them are mine, but now and then I do something toward which I feel, when I look back upon it, a curious sense of irresponsibility, as if it were not of my doing after all. Such deeds are always those which I seldom do; my everyday virtues and my everyday vices I must admit are mine.

But there is just one thing which I always acknowledge as mine. It is the sense of effort. It matters not whether I employ it in contracting my muscles to the utmost, in fixing attention upon some uninteresting object, in following some distant end in spite of the solicitations of the present, or in overcoming for some moral reason the claims of the greater pleasure—this sense of effort I always acknowledge and always must acknowledge as mine.

The word self, then, seems to stand for the most frequently recurrent elements of my inner life, with the consciousness of effort as its very essence and core. But it is evident that we can not, whenever we speak of it, think all these things. To evade that necessity most men probably make use of some vague thought symbol which the word self suggests. Symbols of this sort are known as concepts. They play a great part in our mental life; without them the marvelous achievements of the human mind would never have been. Yet they are so shadowy and evanescent that it is almost impossible to determine their precise constitution, and the more complex and diverse the phenomena they stand for, the greater the difficulty of fixing and describing them. The task is almost as fruitless from the practical point of view as it is vain from the speculative, yet an immense amount of labor and ingenuity has been expended upon it. Most of the work commonly termed metaphysical is based upon the conviction that these shadows are or represent realities apart from the concrete things for which they stand; sundry attributes are ascribed to them, and out of these imaginary attributes the metaphysician tries to construct a science. Most of the difficulties that attach to the notion of a self or ego spring out of this confusion between the symbol and the things symbolized, and I shall therefore say no more of the symbol, but confine myself to the concrete states of consciousness which constitute my thinking self and which alone possess interest for me.

If this analysis of the self be true, it will follow that the consciousness of self can be modified by the addition to or subtraction from my inner life of large masses of stable elements, and this appears to be borne out by the facts.

Extensive changes in the mass of bodily sensation are frequently accompanied by modifications in the sense of self. I can not go into this in detail, but those who care to follow the subject out will find it treated at length by Prof. Ribot in his little monograph. The Diseases of Personality.

Great changes in one's circumstances and surroundings are often connected with similar changes in the self-consciousness. A journey to a foreign land, the sudden death of a relative or friend, a great disappointment in love or in business, or an equally great and unexpected success—all these necessarily involve the demolition of many of one's most permanent habits, plans, and expectations. There may follow a period of confusion in which the self of the present moment looks back upon the self of the past as a very different being.

Analogous changes take place normally in the course of life with the constant addition of new experiences and development of new instincts. The sense of self usually changes imperceptibly to keep pace with these new growths, but sometimes the change can be felt. The young man or young girl sometimes notices it during or at the close of the period of adolescence, and we frequently become conscious of it at other times, when something brings very clearly to mind the events of years ago. Not long since I ran across a book over which I used to pore as a child, but had not seen for years; when I opened it, my present self for just one moment fell away, and I was again a child of eight. It was a strange experience, and the childish self that then for a second or two lived again was much more unlike the present I than I commonly think of it as being.

If our memories are constituent parts of our self-consciousness, it follows that any extensive abolition of memories will impair or destroy a man's sense of self. This is so common a phenomenon that I need not quote illustrations. More interesting are those cases in which certain portions of a person's memory are abolished and restored at varying intervals, especially when illusory memories and other delusions are commingled with the memories that remain. In such cases we get true modifications of the patient's personality. One of the best known of these cases is that of Ansel Bourne.[1]

Mr. Bourne lived in a village near Providence, R. I. On January 17, 1887, he went to Providence, drew five hundred and fifty-one dollars with which to pay for a farm he intended to buy, and then disappeared. About two weeks later he appeared in Norristown. Pa., styling himself A. J. Brown, rented a room, divided it in two by curtains, lived and slept in the rear room, and opened a little shop in the front for the sale of toys, confectionery, notions, etc. During the six weeks he lived there no one noted anything unusual in his demeanor.

"On the morning of Monday, March 14th, about five o'clock, he heard, he says, an explosion like the report of a gun. or a pistol, and, waking, he noticed that there was a ridge in his bed not like the bed he had been accustomed to sleep in. He noticed the electric light opposite his windows. He rose and pulled away the curtains and looked out on the street. He felt very weak, and thought he had been drugged. His next sensation was that of fear, knowing that he was in a place where he had no business to be. He feared arrest as a burglar, or possibly injury. He says this is the only time in his life he ever feared a policeman.

"The last thing he could remember before waking-was seeing the Adams express wagons at the corner of Dorrance and Broad Streets, in Providence, on his way from the store of his nephew in Broad Street to his sister's residence in Westminster Street, on January 17th. He waited to hear some one move, and for two hours he suffered great mental distress. Finally, he tried the door, and, finding it fastened on the inside, opened it. Hearing some one moving in another room, he rapped at the door." His landlord opened it, and from him he learned where he was, how he came there, and what day of the month it was. The landlord thought he was insane and sent for a doctor, and the doctor telegraphed for his relatives and had him taken home.

Prof. James, of Harvard, and Dr. Hodgson heard of this case about three years later, and got Mr. Bourne's consent to their investigating it. Prof. James hypnotized Mr. Bourne, with the hope of reviving the Brown state, and was surprisingly successful. He told the story of his wanderings correctly, giving clews to his doings during the two weeks that elapsed after he left Providence and before he appeared in Norristown. Of his own history he could tell very little. Said he: "Seems as if I was sot right down there in Dorrance Street without knowing where I came from. Got into a spot, don't know how I came there, both ends are blank." His name, he said, was Albert John Brown. He was "born in Newton, N. H., July 8, 1826 [he was born in New York city, July 8, 1826], had passed through a great deal of trouble, losses of friends and property; loss of his wife was one trouble—she died in 1881; three children living, but everything was confused prior to his finding himself in the horse car on the way to Pawtucket; he wanted to get away somewhere—he didn't know where—and have rest. . . . Pie had heard of the singular experience of Ansel Bourne, but did not know whether he had ever met Ansel Bourne or not. He had been a professor of religion himself for many years, belonged to the 'Christian' denomination, but back there everything was mixed up. He used to keep a store in Newton, N. H., and was engaged in lumber and trading business; had never previously dealt in the business which he took up in Norristown. He kept the Norristown store for six or eight weeks—how he got away from there was all confused; since then it had been a blank. The last thing he remembered about the store was going to bed on Sunday night, March 13, 1887."

Some of these statements are true and others are not. He was never in Newton, N. H., in his life, and never engaged in any kind of trade. He had been a carpenter, farmer, and itinerant evangelist. His first wife did die in 1881, but he had married again; of his second wife the Brown personality never had any knowledge.

The nature of this change of personality is now fairly clear. The greater part of Ansel Bourne's memories were obliterated; the few that remained had lost all organic connection with one another, and gave rise to illusions of memory. Probably his new name and his notion that he had engaged in the lumber and trading business sprang from confused recollections of his own name and of his trade as a carpenter. But there was no material change in the active side of his nature. His character and instincts remained pretty much what they had been before. Further inquiry showed that he had had several epileptiform "fainting fits" within the last few years, and had been early in life the subject of a sudden loss of sight, hearing, and speech, followed by a "miraculous" cure.

Another typical case is that of Félida X——. This girl was first seen by Dr. Azam, of Bordeaux, in June of 1858. She was then about fifteen years old. About two years before hysterical symj)toms had appeared; between her fourteenth and fifteenth years, at intervals of four or five days, and especially after some emotional excitement, she would feel a pain in the temples, followed by overpowering drowsiness. After an apparent sleep of ten minutes or so she would awake in a secondary state. It would last an hour or two, and then she would pass into her ordinary condition through a period of unconsciousness, as before.

In the primary state she was perfectly sane, was intelligent, resolute, and diligent, but taciturn, gloomy, even morose. She was not affectionate, was inclined to dwell upon her condition, and suffered much from pains of obscure origin. In the second state she was gay, hummed a tune over her sewing, was quick of movement, vivacious, fond of visiting, was emotionally sensitive and generally flighty. Her pains were much better. In her first state she remembered all her childhood and what had happened during other occurrences of the same state, but nothing of the second. In the second, however, her memory was complete, embracing the first as well as the second. She then spoke of her primary condition as her "attacks" (crises) or as that "stupid state" (cet état bête). Occasionally a third state made its appearance. The transition was as above described, but in it she seemed mentally confused, was the prey to intense terror, saw horrible visions, etc.

She married when between sixteen and seventeen years of age, and Dr. Azam lost sight of her for sixteen years. In 1876 he hunted her up again, and had kept her in sight until the appearance of his book in 1887. Considerable changes have taken place in her condition. The transition states are much shorter, being scarcely noticeable. Her second state has continuously gained ground upon her first, so that in 1865, ten years after its first appearance, her life was about equally divided between them. In 1875 the first only recurred at long and irregular intervals and lasted only a few hours. In 1887 its recurrences were rarer and shorter still. Throughout her life she has been a hysteric of the worst kind. She had had her sensations of touch, taste, and smell impaired, she had had frequent hæmorrhages from the nose, lungs, and stomach, and when excited had convulsive attacks. On one occasion she had a hæmorrhage from the scalp. Red spots often appear on the left side of the body and are accompanied by pain and heat, frequently by swelling. One such swelling on her hand burst her glove. The third state, that of panic terror and mental confusion, has become much more frequent and lasts longer. With advancing years and troubles her second state has become less gay and careless, so that the contrast of character is not so marked, but the gulf in her memories remains as wide as ever. She went to a friend's funeral in the second state; on her way home she passed into the first and could not imagine what brought her into a carriage full of mourners. Her sister-in-law died after a long illness; Fèlida passed into her first state and knew nothing of her death, but, remembering her illness, inferred that she had died from the mourning garb in which she found herself clad. Once in her second state she grew jealous of another woman and tried to hang herself, but was cut down in time by her neighbors. When she recovered she expressed the wish to go into her first state, for then, she said, she would forget her misery. And she did, for the next time she passed into it she showed herself most affectionate to the former object of her jealousy.

The changes that take place in Félida's case are more far-reaching than those of Ansel Bourne. Not only are large blocks of memories erased, but the active side of her mind is profoundly affected. Yet one would scarcely say that the two Félidas were different people. Rather does it seem that the real Félida is the second, the one which first came to light amid the changes of adolescence. It is like Ansel Bourne's case reversed, for A. J. Brown is Ansel Bourne shorn of nearly all that was his; the second Félida is the first Félida completed by the addition of much that was her birthright.

I have already alluded to the fact that Ansel Bourne early in life suffered a sudden loss of sight, hearing, and speech, and as suddenly regained them; and in the case of Félida I also alluded to her hysterical condition and to her third state. Now, all these phenomena from the purely psychological point of view belong under the same category. The sudden splitting off from the true Ansel Bourne of a mass of states and tendencies which took a new name and called themselves a new person is precisely analogous to the equally sudden splitting off from Ansel Bourne's consciousness of his powers of sight, hearing, and speech. In my first three papers I have developed at length the conception of consciousness as a co-ordinated system capable of greater or less dissolution or disordination without the destruction of its component elements. These two cases are illustrations in point. In both the period of complete disordination or "unconsciousness" was very brief and was followed by a recombination of the elements which had formerly constituted a personality into a dist nctly new system, which in one case assumed a new name. In Félida's third state we have a third recombination of some of these elements, but it is apparently very imperfect, for it is accompanied by hallucinations, and hallucinations depend in large measure upon defective coordination. In the case of A. J. Brown the new system seemed relatively quite stable, for it was evoked three years afterward by simply disordinating Mr. Bourne's consciousness. Yet in its later occurrences it appeared to be disintegrating.

I have spent a good deal of time upon these three cases because their relative simplicity, their similarity, and the care with which they have been observed make it easy to form a conception of the way in which the successive states were related to one another. The next which I shall take up does not differ from these in kind, but is much more complex. In it we see the patient's memory-store split into at least five groups, among which the use of his sense organs and muscles is repartitioned in a most curious manner, while his character presents in each state certain distinctive traits.

Louis V—— was born in Paris, February 12, 1863, of a dissolute and hysterical mother and an unknown father. Even in his early childhood he was hysterical, had hæmorrhages from the stomach and transient paralyses. His mother maltreated him, and he became a vagabond. At eight years and a half he was committed to the house of correction at Saint-Urbain. His health was fairly good until March 23, 1877, when he was frightened by a viper, which wound itself around his arm while he was gathering wood. That night he had a violent attack of convulsions; when they passed away, his lower limbs seemed permanently paralyzed. His character was gentle and timid. Three years later he was transferred to an asylum at Bonneval, where lie was taught the trade of a tailor. After two months he had a convulsive attack which lasted fifty hours; at its close the paralysis had disappeared and with it all recollection of the past three years, including all that he had learned in the tailor shop. His character and tastes had also changed. He had become quarrelsome, greedy, and rude. Formerly he did not like wine, and used to give his allowance to his comrades; now he stole theirs whenever he could. He robbed a fellow-patient and escaped; when recaptured he fought savagely with his captors. In June, 1881, he was released as cured. For the next three years and a half he spent the greater portion of his time in insane asylums in various parts of France. In January of 1885 he escaped from the Bicêtre in Paris, where he was then confined, made his way to Rochefort, and enlisted in the marines. He was soon arrested and convicted of theft, but was thought to be insane and was sent to the asylum. There he fell into the hands of Professors Bourru and Burot, of the medical school at Rochefort. With infinite pains they recorded his condition, traced out his past history, and in their little book. Variations de la Personnalité (Paris, 1888), have given us a very careful analysis of the phenomena which he presented. After his release from Rochefort, Louis —— was studied by other alienists, especially by Dr. Mabille, of La Rochelle, and Prof. M. J. Voisin, of the Salpêtrière. Of late years his health has improved and many of his strange symptoms have disappeared.

The case is too complex to be given at length; a brief outline must suffice. MM. Bourru and Burot found that his conscious existence seemed split into at least five major states, in some of which several minor ones might be distinguished. In each state he remembered certain portions of his life, possessed certain sensations, had control of certain groups of muscles, and manifested certain traits of character. Each state could be induced in two ways: (1) By applying an electric current, magnet, or some substance—such as a bar of soft iron or a piece of gold—to a definite portion of his body; (2) by suggestion. Later Dr. Mabille discovered a third method of induction: by pressing upon certain groups of muscles he could cause them to become rigid, and then the patient passed into that state in which those muscles were regularly rigid.

Of these five states, the most important—that is, the one in which he approached most nearly to the normal—could be produced by applying a bar of soft iron to the right thigh. In it he was free from paralysis, and the strength of his arms was nearly equal, but his left side was abnormally sensitive. His character was that of an agreeable but commonplace young man; his language was correct; he could read and write fairly well. He remembered the greater part of his life, but forgot the periods during which, he had been in other states.

Of the four other states of which I shall speak, the first three are marked by paralysis, sometimes accompanied by contracture, of the left side, right side, and lower half of the body, respectively; in the fourth he is free from all paralysis. With the paralysis the sensations of the paralyzed portions, including those of the special senses, are diminished or abolished.

When paralyzed on the right side he is excitable, violent, and impertinent; smokes all the time, and bothers every one with demands for money or tobacco. His speech is thick and almost unintelligible. He fawns upon those who are kind to him, but if crossed in the least flies into a rage. He professes himself an atheist and ultra-radical, and desires to kill those who exact of him tokens of respect. He either boasts of his thefts and justifies them or denies them altogether. He remembers very little of his past life, but, so far as it goes, his memory is excellent. He lives chiefly on milk.

Applying a magnet to the right arm causes difficulty in breathing, anxiety, mental confusion, slight movements on the right side; then the paralysis, anæsthesia, etc., all pass to the left side. His character is absolutely reversed. His speech is correct; he is gentle and polite; he thinks himself too ignorant to have opinions on questions of politics or religion. He no longer drinks milk at all. Of his former life he remembers only those fragments in which he was paralyzed in the same way.

Upon applying a magnet to the nape of the neck, the paralysis and anæsthesia pass to the lower half of the body. He is depressed; his speech is childish; he can barely spell the simplest syllables. He is stupid, and can not give his age correctly, but he can sew quite well. His memory covers those three years only during which his legs were paralyzed and in which he was taught the trade of a tailor.

Upon passing an electric current through his body, or applying a magnet to the top of his head, a fifth state is produced. He is free from all paralysis, and finds himself transported to the day when he was frightened by the viper. His muscular strength is about two thirds what it was in his first state; his character is that of an amiable little boy of fourteen. While in this state he fell asleep and dreamed aloud of his days at the reform school, telling a lazy companion that he ought to be grateful to the kind superintendent, and try his best to escape the vagabond's life which was otherwise in store for him. For his own part, he said, he was grateful to the judge who sent him there; he was sick and ignorant then and would have been lost, but now he proposes to lead an honest life of labor. The doctors tried to keep him in this state and bring him gently to a consciousness of his true situation, but he soon fell into a convulsive attack and passed out of it.

I have no comments to make upon the reported efficacy of magnets and other physical agents in producing these phenomena. Most neurologists maintain, I believe, that they act only through suggestion, but a few claim that they have in some cases a specific effect. I have never seen any such phenomena myself, but the evidence is strong and the field seems to me one of the most promising for psycho-physiological investigation.

Quite apart from that, there can be no doubt that this constant shifting and redistribution of the elements of Louis V——'s personality rest at bottom upon a physiological foundation. Especially significant is the impairment of speech, when the paralysis was transferred from the left to the right side. The right side of the body is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain, and vice versa. Now, it is known that in right-handed people the organ of speech is situated upon the left side of the brain. If these phenomena were wholly dependent upon suggestion, the patient's mental symptoms would correspond to what he thought they ought to be. But he would scarcely know that a right-sided paralysis ought to be accompanied by disorders of speech. It seems to me quite certain that in one of these states the right hemisphere was chiefly active and in the other the left; it is fair to infer that his other states depended also upon the functioning of definite portions of his brain, although one can not specify what those portions were.

Mr. F. W. H. Myers, in commenting upon this case,[2] conjectures that possibly in all of us the right hemisphere is less highly evolved than the left, and that, "just as certain of our visceral arrangements retain the traces of our prehuman ancestry, and just as our dextro-cerebral speech centers are often stammering, childish, or wholly inefficient, so also our dextro-cerebral 'character-forming' centers—the centers which on that side of the brain sum up or represent our highest activities—may retain, in their inferior evolution, traces of that savage ancestry which forms the somber background of the refinements and felicities of civilized men."

Louis V——'s states, although more complex than those of Félida X—— and Ansel Bourne, do not differ from them in kind.

In all we have an apparent dissolution of the conscious self and the reconstruction of its elements into a new form. But one of these forms calls for special comment. In his last state Louis seemed to have fallen back into the condition in which he was eight years before. This is more than a reconstruction of elements; it involves the revival of much that we usually suppose to be irretrievably lost. If such a recrudescence of the old childish self is possible, we must suppose that the growth of the brain is carried on like that of an onion, layer upon layer. Of course, I do not mean this literally. I merely mean that those portions of the brain which were active in childhood, the activity of which constituted my self of that period, may exist years after they have been disused, and then suddenly be brought into action again. Many such cases have been reported. The patient is described as literally relapsing into childhood; her thoughts, memories, desires, acts, even her writing, are those of her former childish self. It is claimed by others that there is no true relapse into childhood; the patient merely acts the part of a child according to her present notion of what she used to be. I have no doubt myself that it is possible. If A. J. Brown could lie dormant for three years under Mr. Bourne's skull only to revive the moment Mr. Bourne was hypnotized, I see no reason why our childish selves may not also survive, and in some cases there is good reason to think they have done so. But most of the cases reported are susceptible to the other interpretation, and, as it is the most simple and natural, I would resort to it whenever possible.

In my next paper I shall take up those derangements of personality in which there seems reason to believe that the secondary system does not wholly perish upon the reconstruction of the first.

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  1. This account is abridged from Dr. Richard Hodgson's paper, A Case of Double Personality, in The Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. vii, pp. 221-257.
  2. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. iv, p. 23.