Wednesday, 16 April 2008

American football star diagnosed with what used to be known as multiple personality disorder

The former American football star Herschel Walker has dissociative identity disorder (DID; previously known as multiple personality disorder), according to a report on CNN.

The idea that people can fragment into multiple personalities (Herschel apparently has 12) has always generated feverish fascination among the public and experts alike. Unfortunately, an authoritative review published in 2005 reveals that our scientific understanding of the condition remains severely lacking (abstract here).

The prevalence of DID/multiple personality has tended to rise and fall dramatically depending on its profile at any given time - always a bad sign from a scientific perspective. The best known case is probably Sybil, with 16 personalities, whose condition was documented by the journalist Flora Schreiber in the 1970s.

Today DID is recognised by psychiatrists as one of a cluster of conditions including depersonalisation disorder (feeling unreal), dissociative fugue (forgetting yourself) and dissociative amnesia (forgetting specific autobiographical episodes).

The name change from multiple personality to DID reflected the fact that experts shifted their focus from the splitting of personalities to the presence of disorders in memory and consciousness. The diagnosis is only made in the absence of any identifiable organic cause.

A popular perspective is that DID emerges as a response to trauma experienced in childhood (Herschel says he was bullied at school). This view of DID makes intuitive sense but has been hard to verify scientifically as accounts are always based on patients' retrospective report.

Link to CNN report on Herschel Walker.
Link to authoritative review of DID (abstract here).

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


LemmusLemmus said...

I seem to remember reading in a popular German book which aimed to dismantle myths about psychology that this whole Sybil story was more or less a fabrication and that there was no such thing as multiple personality disorder. Is this anywhere near the consensus in psychology/psychiatry? Complete rubbish?

Digest said...

No I don't think the consensus is that DID is complete rubbish. But I do think there is a recognition among more scientific-minded psychologists and psychiatrists that a lot of what we know about the condition is based on what patients say, with little objective or experimental corroboration. Check out the review I linked to for a comprehensive and balanced account of the field.

LemmusLemmus said...

Thank you; an interesting read.

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