As You Know Bob - My Brain Is a Glass House

As you know Bob, my brain is a glass house and dissociative identity disorder may be a good thing.

As you know Bob, my brain is a glass house. A very warm, lush place where things grow—an Eden, as it were, where the first lovers abide.

Why should I bring that up? Well, have you ever wondered what your lover is really thinking? Yes, very often, don’t you? We look into a face, into their eyes and think we see a soul there, but we do not. All we do is project, and with luck, the projection correlates with reality. Psychologists talk about "theory of mind," which appears early in childhood, or barely at all, leading to social phobias and xenophobia where everyone is unpredictable and therefore a threat. Essentially theory of mind is the ability to simulate within one’s own mind what another person might be thinking from having observed their cues of expression and behavior. Social animals like primates are very good at it; others, less so. The practice is called "mind-reading," though it is not telepathy and there is nothing extra-sensory about it.

That is the problem. The object of one’s regard remains trapped behind glass. How much do we see because of its transparency and how little do we see because of its tendency to reflect?

Alice, as you know, had no such problem with her looking glass, but try as we might, we simply cannot reach through the glass and enter the realms of true or fantastic reality, let alone another’s mind. Augmented reality and head-up displays could show us simulacra overlaid upon the real world… but, well Bob, have you heard of Plato’s Cave? Of course you have. Imagine a prisoner chained to the floor of a cave. Behind them is a fire, and passing before, the Gods pass, holding up the objects that are their ideas… but all the prisoner can see is their twisted, ambiguous shadows as they flicker and squirm upon the wall.

Modern media technology has made the spirits visible, but only through Google Glass, darkly. Virtual reality, alas, is an illusion that becomes a delusion.

And there Bob, is the cause of a deep spiritual frustration. It is one that can never be overcome and one that must be overcome because it is our fundamental limitation as corporeal beings.

There is a solution. The obvious one, which most people imagine, is to contrive some sort of portal that would enable one to step into the fairy world, but there is a mistake there—do you know what it is? The mistake is to assume that one can enter this other realm and engage with it as if it were of a similarly corporeal nature. In order to engage with the world of the fairies, it must be on genuinely common ground.

And I know where that ground lies.

What do you know about memory and personality Bob? It is no great mystery. We know a lot now about how both are created and the role of various parts of the brain in their creation. Unfortunately, much of what we have learned is through tragedy, but that need not be the case now. For example, it is known that the hippocampus mediates a lot of the laying down of memory that is the basis of unique personality and that those who have suffered persistent trauma at a young age can show two unusual correlating characteristics. One is a relative atrophy of the hippocampus, meaning that the integrative function that it performs is somewhat inhibited and the other is called "Dissociative Identity Disorder," or popularly, a split personality.

This is how it usually works: the victimized personality "goes away" as it were, handing over the burden to a stronger synthetic persona that evolves specifically to endure its depredations. The relationship that they have is that of "host" and "guardian," the guardian being everything that the host wishes they could be. In a crisis, the host will retreat—not so much disappear as become completely passive—and the guardian will step forward, taking the pain and trauma and integrating it into their own matrix of memories and growing themselves as a distinct, real being. Sometimes this process is repeated, with additional personae emerging, and not all of them may be so benign.

Well, that’s all rather technical isn’t it Bob? Technical language can be obscure at times. I’ve been carefully vague about the causative trauma, because it can take many forms, not just child abuse as is often thought to be the case, but severe injury, chronic physical illness, body dysmorphia, anorexia, simple bad luck and circumstance… as I said, many things. The question I’m sure you’re asking is, what does it feel like?

What having a multiple personality feels like depends on the… person. That’s a difficult and perhaps inappropriate word to use, but I can’t very well say "individual" can I? Imagine an automobile then: it has a distinct brand and appearance, everyone sees the same car at all times. However, there are two people in the front seats and perhaps more in the back and they all have a long drive ahead of them, because their journey is their lifetime, so this automobile won’t be driven at all times by the same person. First the host drives, but sometimes the road is obscure and rough, far beyond their skills, so they let another take over while they sit beside them and watch the passing landscape and the other cars through the glass. Sometimes they might sleep and wake up a long way away. (Yes, you can assume that the vehicle has plumbing or they take comfort stops; there’s no need to be vulgar, Bob.) How much and in what way these people in the automobile are aware of each other, how convivial and willed their relationships are vary from case to case.

So long as the vehicle has left the rough roads, it would be very unkind to think of this condition as always an illness in need of a cure, I think.

Now what does all this have to do with caves. All right then, allow me to make the connections plain. Remember that I said that it would be delusional to think that one could create a portal into cyberspace through which one could pass in one’s physical body? Remember that in our world with our eyes we could see only shadows of the other realms? I said that we needed to find common ground to speak truly with the faerie folk. Well then, we’ve used digital technology and projections of all sorts, but as I’ve said, we’ve always been separated from them by panes of glass. But not any more.

Are you shocked or skeptical? Have you never talked to yourself? Have you never pretended to be someone else? Have you never "self-medicated"? Remember your childhood games and fantasies, and most of all remember their sincerity. Remember how fiercely you would fight to defend the reality of your imaginary friends against adult skepticism and how much you were willing to stake on their reality. Don’t tell me that you never wanted your playmates to be real and made yourself believe that they were.

That existential desire now has a technical facilitation. One’s own brain on the other hand is the most powerful, the most plastic and the most intimate of technologies, and we have the tools to sculpt it, directing the hippocampus through medication and magnetic fields to be more or less receptive to selected experiences and to fix memories in their chosen places. Electromagnetic stimulation of the frontoparietal cortex was shown by Giulio Rognini in 2014 to induce the sense of a ghostly presence of another being. Carefully combined, these treatments can cause two memory clusters to emerge and to perceive each other as separate beings while still having contact.

It’s quite simple therefore to make a cluster of memories more closely associated with each other than with others and the brain itself will do the work of molding them together into a permanent and coherent functioning form. You might think of this process as the gardening of minds.

True, a garden is not an automobile, Bob, but a metaphor is a contingently useful way of looking at a thing, it is not absolute, unitary truth. So to nest that old metaphor within itself, let us assume that it has now left the driver’s seat to take a nap. You have to be nimble and able to switch from one way of looking at a thing to another quickly. Now we are a garden.

For a long, long time, the supposed ideal has been a "fully-rounded, well-integrated" personality. Why, I ask? I share my brain with the fairy folk I once could see only on the other side of an impenetrable looking glass. I am never, ever alone and now that I have undergone a very special form of the procedure, you—which is the real you, as far as I am concerned—will be mine forever.

Brett Davidson
Brett Davidson

Author based in Wellington, New Zealand. As a boy, he managed by hook and by crook to get the first issue of Omni and became hooked himself.

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As You Know Bob - My Brain Is a Glass House