Space- and time-fractured identity disorders

You have an identity disorder if who you think you are is at odds with who you actually are and as a result your functioning in society is impaired. Classified examples include multiple personality disorder, a brain containing two identities with each only knowing of itself, and gender identity disorder, someone who feels one gender but is the opposite sex. I would like to propose two more identity disorders which, while prevalent and seemingly distinct, are actually quite similar.

A primer on symbolism is required. Symbolism is simply representing non-physical entities with physical ones. It exists for two reasons: we are spatial animals and there aren’t nearly as many spatial objects as abstract ones. Since half of our ancestors’ brains were dedicated to representing and processing space, that’s the only type of data our imagination can manipulate. Challenge yourself to imagine an object near another without seeing the image in your head of it physically positioned below, above, or beside. “Near,” a pure concept with no information on relative position, can only be represented physically by the imagination with position. Or try to imagine justice or friendship without picturing a blinded statue or people holding hands.

We must store an enormous number of ideas and memories when we can only imagine a small number of physical objects. Not being able to imagine abstract concepts seems quite a handicap. Nevertheless, we’ve come up with an excellent solution. We store concepts behind a related physical object and manipulate that. Unlike concepts, objects can be categorized, sorted, and referenced by the spatial abilities of the imagination. Computer programmers have the same problem of storing a lot of input in a limited number of slots. Their solution is called hashing. Ours is called symbolism.

There is a serious flaw with this makeshift solution. In a very real way, our abstract thoughts are stored in the objects and environment around us. A classroom may store behind it a memory of failure. A crack in the sidewalk may store a frustrated opinion on city tax allocation. Though all these thoughts are stored in the brain, they are triggered when an object in the physical world is copied into the imagination.

This leads us to space-fractured identity disorder. When enough of one’s identity is keyed on the objects and structures around him, can we consider his identity dissociated? What if moving or taking a vacation changes someone as fully as a lobotomy because it effectively is a lobotomy? What if moving or taking a vacation changes someone as fully as a lobotomy because it effectively is a lobotomy? If two identities in one brain constitute a disorder, surely one identity spread across more than a single brain qualifies as well.

But if someone’s identity is spread beyond himself and he moves away trying to leave it behind, doesn’t this show that his identity is what he thinks it is and he is implementing an effective solution? Not in the least. The disorder lies in thinking one’s identity exists outside of oneself when it really doesn’t. Traveling does not change a person’s formation of memories, the amount he dwells on them, or his ability to deal with them. It merely makes it more difficult to access a set formed previously. This wisdom is succinctly contained in aphorisms like, “You can’t run from yourself.”

What other consequences arise from this disorder besides an overwhelming desire to escape? Perhaps those without it have a superior ability to store actual concepts rather than keying them on objects. It might allow people to fall in love online—something my ape brain finds incomprehensible without anything to see or touch. This disorder-free person may skip fewer classes, since he wouldn’t need to actually see the classroom to imagine class taking place without him. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the credo of the space-fractured identity. Perhaps people with the disorder make more malicious financial and political leaders, unable to imagine the consequences of manipulating invisible currency or dropping bombs on places unseen.

If an identity can be dissociated through space, can it also be dissociated through time? Absolutely, time-fractured identity disorder is marked by belief that one’s identity changes over time. It sounds odd, but if you’re a procrastinator, this is what’s going on in your head. Putting off a task that becomes more difficult over time is not something one would do if one believed himself to be exactly the same person in the future. When we procrastinate, we’re asking a future self to do a task as if he were a different person. Why else would we punish ourselves? “I’ll put off writing the paper until much later, backing the person that’ll have to do it into a corner and forcing him to hurry.” A reasonable statement…if that person isn’t you.

This disorder has more serious consequences as well. While expecting space to change your identity merely causes you to travel a lot, expecting time to do the same can cause an indefinite stagnation. If you imagine some future you to be more assertive, successful, and ambitious simply because it is a future you, why take steps now to become that person? Eventually a combination of maturing and the right circumstances will change you into that person, right?

Only in properly defining and understanding these phenomena can we truly overcome them. An understanding of procrastination based simply on laziness suggests poor solutions which, even when they do work, are only patchwork and do not transform a procrastinator. They are treatments, not cures. Similarly, an understanding of a desire to travel or escape based on there being different “types” of people not only suggests no solution, it suggests no problem! Much as targeting the fever or dizziness of a bacterial disease does nothing to cure it, targeting the symptoms of these mental disorders is of no real help. I suggest the root cause of these disorders is a fractured identity and that the treatments, whatever they are, will involve reintegrating that identity.

4 thoughts on “Space- and time-fractured identity disorders

  1. Interesting… I think I have an extreme case of time-fractured identity disorder. Not all the time, but a lot of the time, I don’t consider myself to have any link to my past or future selves. I think this may have started by my continual seeking to change and improve myself, but as a result I end up having very little in common with past selves, other than sharing some similar memories. So it’s hard for me to think of us as the same person.

    I’ve gotten to the point where I often assume that when I go to sleep someone else is going to wake up and continue in my place. And when I wake up in the morning I wonder whether my memories from the past day were implanted or real.

    So why do I plan for the future at all? Only because it’s enjoyable to me in the present. Working towards a goal has always been one of the more delightful feelings for me. Whether or not I’m actually there to finish it is often irrelevant to me. As long as I can rest assured it’ll eventually get finished by someone.

    Admittedly, our language is based around the notion of identity continuity, that a snapshot of me now is at its core the same as me at some other point in time. So it’s sometimes confusing for me to switch back and forth between my internal language and the society’s external language. But I think there’s an element of truth in both views… ie, I share a lot more in common with my past or future selves than I do with a random other person… but we don’t share everything. And so some of the time it makes sense to call us one and other times it makes more sense to call us many.

  2. As long as you’re using programming metaphors, try this one: identity vs. equivalence.

    Identity is the concept of being exactly the same thing. If you create two objects and fill them with the same information, they’re not identical, because they’re still two separate objects.

    Equivalence is the concept of meaning or containing the same thing. Those two objects are equivalent because they contain the same information, even though they aren’t identical. OTOH, if you change the contents of an object, its “past self” is still identical to its “future self”, but not equivalent. In C#, the Equals method tests equivalence, while the ReferenceEquals method (or, usually, the == operator) tests identity. (Pascal extends this to types: two records or pointers that have the same definition are equivalent, but not identical, unless one of them is defined as an alias of the other. Some operations only require type equivalence, but some require type identity.)

    Now, how does this apply to your theory?

    If I put off a task until tomorrow because I expect I’ll be more willing to do it tomorrow than I am today, that doesn’t mean I think my identity will change. I’ll still be the same person tomorrow that I am today; as a sane individual, I know that I’ve always been the same person and always will be. But who I am today is not equivalent to who I’ll be tomorrow. In fact, who I am now isn’t equivalent to who I was five minutes ago. Everyone is always changing because of their experiences, and I don’t think that should be news to anyone.

  3. your argument reminds me of nietzsche’s essay on “on truth and lies in a nonmoral sense” … as quoted, “if we are forced to comprehend all things only under these forms, then it ceases to be amazing that in all things we actually comprehend nothing but these forms.” People forget themselves within their own creations, yet they also realize their own natures by language descriptions. Language’s repetitive use of metaphor allow for a desensitization. i recommend reading it. For a philosopher, nietzche is a great writer.

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