Dissociated Self-States Theory
Psychology faces an enormous challenge as a science. It's a science that attempts to either make (or fake) objective observations regarding people's entirely subjective internal experiences.
This makes it very awkward. There's really no way to prove when a developmental theory is correct or not. You can't craft experiments and hypotheses that would require messing around with early childhood development; it's unethical. So psychology is stuck when it comes to figuring out exactly what's going on when a child is newly born.
The developmental theory of a newborn coming into the world having many detached self-states is one of a series of theories that supplanted earlier developmental theories, including Freud's original ages & stages theories, with something that researchers and theoreticians hope is closer to the truth. We can study brain activity, but we cannot study consciousness in itself, and we can't even ask a newborn what they think is going on in their head. Even doing brain activity studies on a newborn is going into sketchy territory that interferes with secure attached neonatal development.
So, basically, this is an area where — no matter how well-intentioned, or how well-informed — psychology as a science is fucked.
As far as researchers and theoreticians are concerned, the theory that all newborns are born with self-states is "good enough" at the moment, even if it may not be true. Certainly under the proper circumstances a child goes through certain well-known observable cognitive developmental milestones (walking & talking…) and comes out the other end as what society considers a well-adjusted adult, and no longer has certain behavioral and attitudinal markers that therapists consider to be sign of the fusion of these various self-states.
We (Crisses) go into a further breakdown of Structural Dissociation Theory and propose an extended model which proposes Quaternary Dissociation and opens up even more plural possibilities that the current primary/secondary/tertiary dissociation theory misses because the folk doing the theorizing have no first-hand experience with what they're attempting to describe. See our video with screen scribbles on YouTube here.
Note, however, all developmental theories of consciousness and agency are reductionist in nature. They're taking an unobservable, organic, dynamic process that shapes billions of neurons and synaptic connections over the course of millions of minutes, and then crunching it down to far more simplistic terms mainly for the sake of being able to fit on a few slides of a presentation when conveying ideas from instructors to students. That's when the developmental theories are supposed to be used the most.
So — what if more than one theory is correct? Or what if they're all so oversimplified that they're missing vital factors of what is really going on? Maybe one day science will figure out how to observe consciousness in a way that does not interfere with development. Maybe one day we'll be able to follow individual neurons, or figure out how a brain creates what we experience as consciousness.
That day is not today.
Based on the idea of "self-states" theoreticians go one step further for folks with dissociative disorders and the issue of C-PTSD in very early development. The Structural Dissociation Theory (as it applies to DID only — note the theory applies to BPD, PTSD, etc.) goes something like this:
An infant is born with the ability to dissociate. For some subjectively significant time in the first 5-6, or maybe up to 9, years of development, the child is traumatized, repeatedly. A confounding factor is also the lack of secure caregiving or a safe place for the child to process the traumas before PTSD forms. This interrupts the normal and natural process of fusing the child's self-states and thus, because the child has the ability to dissociate, they remain separate and develop separately. They end up with 2 types of dissociative "parts" of what should have, under typical circumstances and healthy caregiving styles, merged into one person. The "ANP" and the "EP" — the apparently normal part, and the emotional part. The ANP does what is necessary to pass as a typical person in between traumatic episodes. The EP stores the traumatic incidents and panic reactions without being able to fully process them (hence the EP has obvious PTSD or C-PTSD).
This theory — the theory of structural dissociation — has many flaws.
One flaw we can see are that it's developed by people who have (theoretically) never experienced these issues.
Many of the plurals who appreciate the theory adhere to it because it does not require that we have an "original" or "core" that we "split" from – and many with the DID syndrome do not experience these phenomenon that were required by earlier theories on DID development. Thus some plurals like the structural dissociation theory because they want to cherry-pick the idea that not all plurals have a host, original or core, and do not see themselves as having split from one person. Many see themselves having been "born plural" and never having been one person at all.
Closer to the truth, or better explaining the truth, does not make it the truth.
Developed with Bias
People who are singular put bias, perhaps unintentional bias, on the desirability of being a singular entity and emphasize the broken-ness of outliers or the need for those who are different to be fixed. Creating singular-centric theories of development, they actually stumbled on a somewhat plural-centric theory of very early development that is actually rather flattering in some ways, even though it still comes around in the end to merging/unification being desirable, and remaining separated/individuated being undesirable.
This portion of the theory is less stigmatizing. It seems to take an extra step towards explaining why some plurals have absolutely no sense of an "original" or "core" identity.
Unfortunately when the entire theory is examined, it does not make it a better theory, nor a correct theory.
Power to the Plurals goes deeper into the ableism of the structural dissociation theory, from angles we can't hope to reproduce. Their excellent article on the topic should not be missed — but do come back here when you're done because we have more fun below on the topic.
Missing Parts & People
The Structural Dissociation theory is really missing the boat when it shoves all "alters" into 2 cubbies that are black & white, and there's no path other than merging/unification to changing from one to the other. There's no blend, no grey area, everything is labeled either a this or a that.
This is just not how people work. People are not one or the other. That's why there's a Kinsey scale and bisexual or pansexuals when it comes to attraction, that's why there's a big trans umbrella including gender neutral and gender fluid, etc.
To assume that people are a one or the other is an elemental flaw in much of psychology. Everything is in degrees or blends and full color, not even black or white or grey. Reductionist or binary thinking is OK for teaching, bad for application. And all instructors need to make it clear that the neat labels and square/round pegs are rarely found in the wild.
Alternate Plural-Centric Theory
So for shits and giggles, let's play with an alternate theory which will show at the very least that there could be more theories, that they could be true, and they do not need to be singular-centric. We'll base this vaguely off of structural dissociation theory to lend it a progenitor and some basis in industry credibility.
We're going to call this The Quantum Theory of Development. And we'll throw some of our thoughts on human development and cognitive development in because what's a developmental theory without some creator bias and potential ego-stroking fantasy?
The Quantum Theory of Development (proposed)
Terminology note: "persona" is used in this theory for early childhood consciousnesses rather than "self-states" which is more singular-centric and derogatory, and "identity" is used for more developed/fixed consciousnesses generally after the early teen years where childhood development theories recognize that children are solidifying conscious identity characteristics.
Is Dissociation Even Necessary?
Science theorizes that everyone has the dissociative ability to some degree, and theoretically stronger dissociation is required for plurality. Whether this is true or not, there are correlations that suggest it, but causation is not proven. So we loosely nod to dissociative ability in this theory, but it is not hinged on or based on it, and by all means people can be more plural with less dissociative ability. Perhaps dissociation only correlates to amnesiac barriers or internal mechanisms that divide up consciousness, and systems that have always been more co-conscious may have less dissociative ability. Please don't consider whether dissociation plays as strong a role in plurality as the quantum consciousness. We believe ALL children and adults have the ability to become plural — with only the plausible exception of those on the thin "nearly none" end of the dissociative bell curve.
The same infant (in terms of genetics and neonatal development) adapted to the Bronze Age as the one that adapted to the Dark Ages, or the Industrial Age, the Information Age. An infant is ready to adapt to any nation, an urban or suburban, rural or agricultural environment, tribal living or nuclear family, migrant or with stable housing. It's a marvel what an infant is ready for in terms of developmental possibilities. One might say that an infant is ready for anything.
One could say that an infant is born with a consciousness that is a whirling mass of possibility. (Inspired by the Schrodinger's Cat theory.) An infant is born with myriad neural possibilities to adapt to nearly any external circumstances, any culture that it's born into. An infant is ready to absorb cues from the environment and interactions with other humans as hint and direction to whom they need to be or become in order to fit into society.
This is beyond myriad self-states. This is rudimentary unformed wiggling masses of potential — billions of neural connections waiting for clues for future direction.
Unless there were cues before the infant was even born. During fetal development, there are sounds that pass into the womb environment. The maternal heartbeat. External voices. Are those voices loving and calm and nourishing? Or are they raised in anger? What about movement? Speeds and g-forces of vehicles, horse gait, running. What about hormones and other chemical signals that pass through the placental barrier? Cortisol? Epinephrine? Oxytocin? Endorphins? What developmental cues could an infant have about the environment they are about to be born into, and how could that affect the quantum consciousness before it even emerges from the womb?
We would like to theorize that if a fetus is subjected to stressors and potentially even trauma in the womb they are far more likely to emerge in a heightened state of hypervigilance, ready for an antagonistic environment. To support this idea, the nesting parent's state of anxiety has been shown to affect fetal development. This infant is ready for adversity; let's call them a proto-panic persona.
A fetus who does not have these additional stressors emerges with a quantum consciousness but without hypervigilance. This infant still develops ready for anything from a cave dwelling environment through space travel, and has the ability to adapt to adversity, but is not as prepared for what is unlikely (due to developmental cues) to be a drastically antagonistic environment. Let's say this is a proto-peace persona.
[In terms of what is normal in humanity in its millions of years of development, I would wager the proto-panic persona would be the more likely to emerge upon birth in a longitudinal study over the millions of years humans were on this planet. It's a lovely but very modern luxury to live in a (more) peaceful world, but that is unlikely to have happened for much more than the last 5,000-10,000 years. Folk could argue whether or not bringing children into a safe and peaceful world is false advertising or sets them up for later adversity, but that's not the point of this article; this is merely a developmental theory. In many modern cultures, adults who grow up sans trauma from a proto-peace infant persona are ironically expected by their fellows to be more resilient when adversity does occur.]
Thus infants are born with the potential to become many types of people, dependent on their environment. Some possibilities may be influenced by genetics and heritage, but for the most part the possibilities are dominated not by the materials on which consciousness is formed, but on the signals received during development both before and after birth that groom the formation of consciousness to adapt to the expectations and needs of the surrounding environment.
On top of this, the infant has some very rudimentary communication mechanisms and needs-monitoring that are common to all humans. The fall and startle reflexes, crying, pain sensors, etc. Outside of these very basic sensory states and mechanisms, and the proto-persona formation from pre-birth with preparation for either an antagonistic environment or a peaceful environment (whether they have a heightened sense of sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system activation), a newborn is a quantum consciousness being.
Also, whether activated or not, children appear to be born with a certain level of ability to (or lack of ability to) dissociate; the dissociation trait is theoretically heritable.
Singularity: Culling the Neurons
An infant born with a proto-peace persona who gets showered with adequate love and attention in a positive-attachment environment will most likely shed the quantum possibilities of entering an adverse environment. Use it, or lose it. Like unloading ballast, as their neural attachments form around having safety and stability, their brain develops with the expectation of continued safety and stability. Why be prepared for adversity that never manifests?
Thus the proto-peace persona may eventually give way to a mostly-singular dominant identity, and the other quantum possibilities for other situational or adaptive identities recedes.
An infant born with a proto-panic persona who is continually startled, frightened, hurt, triggered and traumatized will grow up ready for adversity and panic. As various adaptive personas are used, they strengthen and develop further into individual identities and various fragments of identity that are useful for storing mental and emotional information separate from the cognitive abilities and identities used for the majority of daily functioning. The coming together of various quantum processes into various adaptive personas strengthens them over time, and they are used in a mostly harmonious survival-positive fashion for years.
The child who is raised with a proto-panic persona, and later develops adaptive personas due to continued need for adaptation to various circumstances may eventually cave in to cultural pressure to present a main identity to the world. Somewhere in the pre-adolescent years, say from 7-9 years old, through teenage years, the child may adapt or learn to suppress and build additional amnesiac barriers to suppress excess personas as needed to pass in society as "normal". This suppression may continue for decades, or it may fail sooner revealing the temporarily hidden adaptive personas that were hidden as being socially inconvenient in a singular-normative society.
Other Quantum Development Possibilities
There are many other possibilities that can happen in the Quantum Theory of Development. Both the proto-peace and proto-panic personas are born ready for creating adaptive personas. Even a child with a strong supportive developmental environment may create adaptive personas ("imaginary playmates") later on for companionship, to handle adversity, to confide in, to mentor each other, etc. There's nothing to say a child must be born with a proto-panic persona in order to develop adaptive personas. The child is still "born ready" with a quantum consciousness to do so, and there are many possible reasons a child may create adaptive personas and continue to maintain them into adulthood, even without a period of suppression (such as a properly plural-positive developmental environment, or lack of singular-normative oppression). Thus this theory accounts for any type of endogenic system. Since all babies are born with the quantum consciousness, every child is born plural-ready.
Thus, even if adversity starts outside of the womb, a younger child will adapt. It gets harder for a child to create adaptive personas if they slough off much of the quantum consciousness or it atrophies through disuse, inhibiting some children who are traumatized at older ages from developing adaptive personas to help them compensate or cope with adversity. Note it does not make this impossible; it just makes it much harder. This author is inclined to believe people who are certain that they developed their first adaptive personas or identities later in childhood, teen years, or even adulthood.
Note this theory does not believe in breaking the established persona/identity to make many identities. This is recalling an atrophied ability, awakening something that was long asleep — which may clone the established identity or create itself in the image of an external role-model, or fantasy figure, or just model itself out of sheer need with no specific identifiable role-model. This theory is not restricted to developing personas or identities from the "birth spirit" or "original". Personas can definitely be created from a variety of available role-models, or piece an identity together ad-hoc.
However, there is absolutely no guarantee that every child in a supportive environment will entirely lose their ability to maintain or develop a quantum consciousness. Creativity, loneliness, a supportive environment — there are many ways and reasons or inspirations to maintain a quantum consciousness.
Even after this ability has atrophied, like any limb that atrophies, one can rediscover it with sufficient inspiration, or rehabilitate it with time and diligent application of certain principles. This is why some plurals say their first headmates arose in adulthood, or tulpamancers are successful at creating tulpas, according to this theory. Just because a proto-peace persona is raised in a good stable environment and never needs to activate the quantum consciousness to create companions or parcel off traumatic information, it does not mean that the singular consciousness has to be alone, fixed, and static forever.
As part of the quantum consciousness, note that the whirling mass of consciousness possibilities in a child is not limited to creating personas or identities. Quantum consciousness is as likely to create "hooks" as personas or identities. Hooks are attachment points that spirits or other beings can temporarily or permanently attach themselves to, to become symbiont with the body and other consciousnesses that exist within the body. Many with the dissociative ability are considered to have spiritual ability in their cultures, whether to speak with spirits, go on out-of-body journeys or trance out, connect to other quantum consciousnesses such as the collective unconscious, and we have no need to create psychology theories that exclude this common human experience. Instead, our theory easily explains it. Quantum consciousness is not a static, binary, fixed thing. It is literally a whirling mass of consciousness possibilities, and Walk-Ins, channeling, speaking with spirits and deities, experiencing the collective unconscious, etc. are all valid spiritual, transpersonal, and quantum psychology experiences.
If a child uses hooks instinctually or through a supportive environment that encourages interacting with the spirit world or other levels of consciousness, then this ability will not atrophy and the child may continue to develop and use this natural ability throughout life. Adults for whom this ability has atrophied of course can train to strengthen and develop the ability, just like any other discipline.
Human beings are amazing creatures in how widely adaptable they are from birth. Born ready for any known technology level or environmental challenge, eminently adaptable to adversity both in and out of the family/clan/tribe unit, and more. Human brains do not lose plasticity or ability to adapt to change, instead they usually gain specific tools and abilities to adapt and rely on those they are used to, which for singular folk is other means than creating or adopting new personas or identities. However it is possible for singular adult humans to recover their ability to use the quantum consciousness with practice and patience and create new adaptive personas (currently called tulpamancy pending potential rename in the future).
Thus this Quantum Theory of Development accounts for: born traumatized, born plural, traumagenic, endogenic, quoigenic, tulpamancers, fictives, walk-ins, shamanic practitioners, channelers, etc. This theory considers DID to be a syndrome of both being a plural (whatever the origins) and having C-PTSD. Just because there is a high correlation (90% I believe, according to the DSM) of early childhood trauma for people diagnosed with DID does not eliminate the potential need to handle distress tied to the intersection of plurality + later-onset C-PTSD.
Please leave comments about this article and theory below. We're willing to add more to this theory and develop it further. Please be respectful; trolling and nastiness will not be approved.