Rita Carter, award-winning science writer and lecturer, works like a major case detective of the brain, astutely tackling investigations spanning consciousness, memory, personality–and (perhaps most notably) the daunting task of mapping the mind itself. She approaches each of these subjects with a genuine passion in a series of critically acclaimed books, offering readers, as one critic from Nature put it, a “feast for the mind.”
Her latest book, Multiplicity: The Groundbreaking New Science of Personality, is a trenchant analysis of the latest research on personality. But unlike a static survey of a complex subject, Carter’s work moves to the next level by exploring applications of leading-edge discoveries. The result is a new way of thinking about personality. She was kind enough to spend a few minutes discussing the book and the ideas it surfaces with neuronarrative.
For those who haven’t yet read your latest book, tell us a little bit about Multiplicity.
What I suggest in the book is that each one of us has several personalities – [personalities being a characteristic way in which we think, behave, feel, and generally view the world]. They come and go in sequence – when one is conscious the others are not and vice versa. Multiple Personality Disorder is an extreme (and pathological) form; total consistency is another, but at the other end of a spectrum. Most of us lie somewhere in between – we slip-slide from one personality to another but generally retain a sense of being the same person because we hang on to the same “core” bunch of memories, which include basic autobiographical facts like our name, age and so on. Some people have personalities which are so similar to one another that when they switch the change is imperceptible except, perhaps, to those who know them very well. In others the changes are dramatic.
While I was completing my ‘personality wheel’ in part two of the book, I have to admit that I found the exercise a little disconcerting; my notion of a unified self was being challenged by an entirely new way of thinking about self (I’m a ‘major-minor’ by the way). I’m curious to know what sort of reactions you’ve received from people who have completed the exercise – is a bit of anxiety typical?
Yes. Our sense of unity – that I am the same “me” I was yesterday, and will be tomorrow – is absolutely central to our notions of identity. I think it is an illusion, but it is an important one that has probably evolved for good reason. So to have it challenged is, as you say, pretty unsettling. Mind you, in most people the illusion of unity is so strong that it bounces back into place more or less immediately!
How multiple are you? Take the short quiz on Rita Carter’s site to find out.
For centuries, it seems, humanity has been on an endless search for self. Has scientific discovery, specifically advancements in what we know about the mind, rendered that search pointless, or dramatically altered its course?
One reason the search for the self is such a long-lasting obsession is that our sense of unity carries with it the idea that there is some “essential” or “authentic” self to find, beneath mere thoughts, feelings, and behavior. It used to be called the soul. I don’t think there is such a thing as “soul” in a literal sense, so to search for it is pointless.
But if “self” is taken to mean “personality”, then I think that what we have found out about it recently – that there is not one per person but many – makes that search more interesting and potentially more exciting.
We’ve seen an explosion in personality testing over the last several years. In your view, how effective are these methods for getting at anything substantive about a self or selves?
The sort of tests that put people in “types” have been shown to be pretty dodgy. They work fine so long as the person doing the test is in the same mind-set each time, but if people are tested at different times and in different situations their shortcomings show up because the test-retest rate falls dramatically. Some studies have shown that your chances of being found to be the same personality “type” on a re-test are not much better than chance. “Trait” type tests, which acknowledge a degree of fuzziness around the edges of a personality, seem to be more reliable. But all of them are based on the notion that everyone has a “real” self and, as Multiplicity I hope shows, this just isn’t the case.
I would expect that conventional personality tests will become less useful in time, a) because I think people are developing more personalities (so the predictive power of a test based on the notion of a single personality will decline), and b) because people will learn to “cheat” the tests by sliding into the personalities they think the tester wants for the duration of the test.
In the section of the book called “The People You Are” you discuss mirror neurons, a topic of particular interest in neuroscience as of late. What is the role of mirror neurons in the context of personality?
Mirror neurons are brain cells which are activated both when a person does something – picks up a cup, say – and when they see someone else doing that action. They provide an automatic entry into another’s mind – their effect is almost like telepathy.
Although mirror neurons are technically found only in the areas of brain concerned with physical movement, a similar mirroring function is found in neurons concerned with emotions and intentions. So just by watching another person you are involuntarily experiencing something of their feelings and plans.
This automatic mimicry (and empathy) helps to “clone” one person’s personality in the mind of another. Children, for example, inevitably “internalize” the opinions and attitudes of their parents or main caretakers and these form the seeds of a personality. In later life we use mirror neurons to emulate those we admire, or just passively absorb personality traits of those around us. Personalities learnt by mimicry and empathy may in time be pushed aside by new ones, but they are rarely forgotten entirely, and may remain in a person as a “minor” for life.
In your books you have mapped the mind, explored consciousness and delved deeply into personality development. What’s next on your radar screen?
I’m currently making a programme for the BBC about reading and the brain and the more I find out about it the more intrigued I am becoming. Language structures our minds, right down to the things we are conscious of. I would love to try to map it – how we arrived at the languages we have, their relationship to the environment in which their speakers evolved, the effect of different types of language on personality and so on. So maybe that’s the next thing. Or maybe – at last, I will get down to writing my novel!
Please visit Rita Carter’s website for more information about her work.
left brain / right brain image credit: Wired.com