We all have multiple personalities

April 7, 2008 12:57:39 PM PDT
"Multiplicity: The New Science of Personality, Identity, and the Self" by Rita Carter

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld does a routine about how he has two personalities - Night Jerry, who stays out too late, and Morning Jerry, who pays the price the next day. Morning Jerry hates Night Jerry.

It's an amusing observation, but there may be a nugget of universal truth in there. According to science writer Rita Carter, we all have a number of personalities, and the key to effective living is to coerce those personalities to live in harmony.

Carter's first premise makes intuitive sense. It's not hard to picture a person who might be a dominant authoritarian with her kids, a nervous introvert at work and a party animal around her best friends.

So which is the "real" her? All of them, Carter says - those aren't different sides of the same personality so much as separate personalities that all inhabit the same brain.

In "Multiplicity: The New Science of Personality, Identity, and the Self," Carter describes the concept of a personality and explains how one's multiple personalities interact. Carter's professional credentials aren't given, and it's unclear whether she's summarizing conclusions from peer-reviewed journals or simply producing her own hypotheses.

Her arguments sound logical. After all, we can all relate to acting differently at different times. Carter's point is that each actor is a different personality, and how we think and feel depends on which personality is taking center stage at that moment.

For example, suppose on Monday an acquaintance invites you to a weekend party. You accept because you're genuinely excited about the event. But by Friday afternoon you might feel so uninterested that you wonder why you accepted in the first place.

It's not that your mood has changed, Carter would argue - your Likes-to-Party personality was dominant when the invitation was accepted, but it later got bumped off stage by your Keeps-to-Yourself personality.

Because we think of ourselves as single personalities, we can't understand why our feelings have changed. But instead of berating ourselves for the change of heart, Carter says, we should focus on controlling the personalities that cause problems. In other words, persuade Keeps-to-Yourself to step back and allow Likes-to-Party to replace it for the night.

Can we really choose which personalities to keep active and which to confine to the background? Certainly, Carter writes. She spends the second half of the book walking readers through simple exercises designed to help them do just that.

But here's where the book begins to lag. The exercises may have value for readers willing to invest the time and mental energy, but a skeptic may remain unmoved.

For example, one exercise has the feel of a tea party among imaginary friends. Carter suggests that readers gather their "personalities" for a discussion: Set one empty chair per personality, visualize each personality sitting there and command the self-destructive personalities to ease up.

This exercise may very well help some people, but it's hard to imagine any but the most hardcore readers actually trying it.

There might be value to rethinking who we are, and the idea of multiple personalities jockeying for temporary control of our brains does help explain those times when we look back and think, "Did I really do that?" or "That was really out of character for me."

But "Multiplicity" promises more than it delivers. To her credit, Carter writes with simplicity and wit, and her anecdotes are engaging. But unless readers are willing to fully immerse themselves in Carter's exercises, the book will be more academic than therapeutic.

In other words, instead of sitting your Evening Jerry down and persuading him to be more considerate of Morning Jerry's feelings, just buy a good alarm clock.