Multiple Personality Disorder Unraveled

Dissociative identity disorder myths deconstructed in paper noting that sleep problems may play a part

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(RxWiki News) For most people, sleep problems can cause a range of health issues, but new research reveals they may contribute to a different mental health problem: dissociative identity disorder.

Dissociative identity disorder, previously called multiple personality disorder, occurs when a person appears to have at least one additional "personality" controlling their body at times, accompanied by a memory loss for the original "host" person.

"Get enough sleep to maintain good mental health."

One theory is that the disorder lay along a spectrum of dissociation, defined clinically as "a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity or perception of the environment," according to the DSM-IV.

The condition has been popularized in the media with shows such as The United States of Tara and the film Sybil, but much about the disorder is misunderstood, according to Steven Jay Lynn, a psychologist at Binghamton University and lead author of the recent paper that challenges conventional wisdom about the condition.

Lynn said the common misconception that people develop multiple personalities in response to severe emotional trauma, such as child abuse or sexual abuse, is not backed up by science.

He and his colleagues reviewed research from various laboratories and a number of studies about dissociation disorders.

He said that even in people with dissociative disorders who did experience child abuse, there is no evidence to support the idea that the abuse caused the psychiatric disorder.

Rather, people who develop the disorder often do so after environmental cues, such as suggestive lines of questioning during therapy or exposure to the pop culture representations of the condition.

But Lynn's research team discovered that sleep problems may play a part in the disorder following a study of 25 healthy people who were intentionally deprived of sleep for one night.

The sleep deprivation led to "a substantial increase in dissociative symptoms," irrespective of mood changes or response bias, according to their review of the study.

Lynn and his colleagues theorize that the connection between sleeping problems and dissociative may also explain the association between trauma and the disorder since traumatic memories can disrupt sleep as well.

Additionally, poor sleep can weaken a person's memory and increase their susceptibility to suggestion.

"We're not arguing that this is a complete or final explanation," Lynn said. "We just hope the word will get out and other investigators will start looking at this possibility."

Lynn said their research aims to educate therapists who may be "strongly influenced" by the traditional model of dissociation, which has little research to support it.

He said that therapists should "be scrupulous in avoiding suggestive approaches—not only with people who may be particularly vulnerable to those procedures, but with people in general who seek help."

He also offers a simple piece of advice: "If your therapist is trying to convince you that you have multiple personalities, you should find a new therapist."

The paper appears in the current issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Last Updated:
February 19, 2012