Click below to listen to this article:
The human multiplicity
Are humans singular or plural? This question may seem paradoxical, but it is at the heart of a growing field of inquiry that challenges the conventional notion of human identity as fixed and unitary. In this article, we will explore the concept that humans are multiplicities, Meaning that they are composed of multiple selves, identities, perspectives, and experiences that coexist and interact within a single person. We will examine the theoretical and empirical foundations of this concept, as well as its implications for various domains of human life, such as psychology, ethics, politics, and art. We will also consider some of the critiques and limitations of this concept, and how it can be applied in a constructive and respectful way. By doing so, we hope to shed some light on the complexity and Diversity of human nature, and to invite readers to reflect on their own multiplicity.
The multiplicity concept
Multiplicity implies that humans have the capacity to change, adapt, grow and transform in different contexts and situations, and that they can hold multiple perspectives, opinions and interests at the same time. It also recognizes that humans are influenced by various social, cultural, historical and environmental factors that shape their Sense of self and their interactions with others. Multiplicity challenges the notion that there is one true or essential way of being human, and instead celebrates the Diversity and richness of human potential.
The idea that humans are a multiplicity, Meaning that they have different aspects or facets of their identity, personality, or self, has a long and complex history. One of the earliest sources of this idea can be traced back to Ancient Greece, where philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle proposed different models of the human Soul, which consisted of rational, spirited, and appetitive parts. These parts were often in conflict with each other, and the goal of ethics was to achieve Harmony among them.
Another influential source of the idea of human multiplicity was the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud, who proposed that the human psyche was composed of three main structures: the id, the Ego, and the superego. The id was the source of instinctual drives and desires, the Ego was the mediator between the id and reality, and the superego was the internalized moral authority. Freud argued that these structures often clashed with each other, resulting in psychological problems such as Neurosis and Repression.
In the 20th century, the idea of human multiplicity was further developed by various schools of psychology, such as humanistic, existential, Cognitive-behavioural, and transpersonal. These schools emphasized different aspects of human experience, such as Self-actualization, Meaning-making, Cognitive schemas, and spiritual dimensions. They also proposed different methods of exploring and integrating the multiple facets of human existence, such as therapy, meditation, art, and dialogue.
The idea of human multiplicity is still relevant and influential today, as it offers a rich and nuanced Perspective on human nature and potential. It also challenges the notion of a fixed or singular self, and invites us to embrace the Diversity and complexity of our being.
The human mind as a multiplicity
“We must accept our multiplicity, the fact that we can show up quite differently in our athletic, intellectual, sexual, spiritual—or many other—states.” – Dan Siegel
“Each of us has a variety of selves, which we draw out and put away according to the situation.” – Daniel Goleman
The human mind is a complex and fascinating phenomenon that has been studied from various perspectives and disciplines. One of the topics that has intrigued researchers and practitioners is the possibility that the human mind is not a singular entity, but a multiplicity of selves or identities that coexist in the same body. This experience of multiplicity has been conceptualized in different ways, such as dissociative identity disorder (DID), other specified dissociative disorder (OSDD), plurality, polypsychism, or simply Diversity of self.
Multiplicity can be understood as a broad term that encompasses any experience of more than oneself in one’s mind or body. People who identify as multiple may have different understandings of the origin, function, and nature of their parts, Alters, or selves. Some may see them as internal aspects of their own psyche, while others may see them as external entities, such as spirits, ancestors, or Soul-bonds. Some may view multiplicity as a disorder, a Trauma response, a disability, or a Diversity. Some may experience multiplicity as distressing, impairing, or life-threatening, while others may experience it as enriching, empowering, or life-saving.
One of the psychological theories that propose that the human mind is a multiplicity is the multiple social categorization theory. This theory suggests that people can perceive themselves and others based on more than one social category, such as race, gender, age, Religion, etc. For example, a person can be a black woman, a Christian, and a lawyer at the same time. These different social categories can interact and influence how people perceive themselves and others in different situations. Multiple social categorizations can have various effects on intergroup relations, such as reducing stereotyping, increasing empathy, and enhancing Diversity.
Another psychological theory that implies that the human mind is a multiplicity is the Cognitive theory. This theory posits that people’s thoughts and beliefs influence their emotions and behaviours. Cognitive theory assumes that people can have different types of cognitions, such as schemas, automatic thoughts, irrational beliefs, etc. These cognitions can be adaptive or maladaptive, depending on how they fit with reality and how they affect one’s wellbeing.
One of the branches of Cognitive theory is the theory of multiple intelligences, which proposes that human intelligence is not a single, general ability, but rather a Differentiation of specific intelligences that reflect different ways of interacting with the world. According to this theory, there are at least eight types of intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. Each person has a unique profile of strengths and weaknesses across these intelligences, and can develop them through education and training.
The theory of multiple intelligences suggests that the human mind is a multiplicity, Meaning that it consists of different aspects or facets that can operate independently or in combination. This implies that people can use different intelligences to solve problems, create products, and express themselves in various domains. The theory also challenges the traditional view of intelligence as a fixed and unitary trait that can be measured by standardized tests. Instead, it proposes a more dynamic and diverse conception of intelligence that respects individual differences and cultural Diversity.
The theory of multiple intelligences has been applied to various fields of education, psychology, and neuroscience, and has inspired many educators to adopt more flexible and personalized approaches to teaching and learning. However, the theory has also faced some criticism and controversy regarding its empirical validity, its definition and classification of intelligences, and its implications for educational policy and practice.
The psychodynamic theory is a psychological theory that explains the origins and development of human behaviour in terms of the dynamics of the mind, such as drives, impulses, wishes, affects, unconscious processes, conflict, and defence mechanisms (Boag, 2018). According to this theory, the human mind is a multiplicity, Meaning that it consists of different parts or agencies that can have conflicting goals and motivations.
Freud (1923) proposed that the mind is divided into three main agencies: the id, the Ego, and the superego. The id is the source of instinctual drives and operates on the pleasure principle, seeking immediate gratification. The Ego is the rational part of the mind that operates on the reality principle, mediating between the id and the external world. The superego is the moral part of the mind that represents internalized values and ideals. The Ego often has to cope with the demands of the id and the superego, which can create Anxiety and guilt.
To protect itself from these negative feelings, the Ego uses various defence mechanisms, such as Repression, denial, projection, rationalization, etc. These defence mechanisms are unconscious mental operations that distort or deny reality to reduce psychological conflict (McLeod, 2023). The psychodynamic theory also emphasizes the importance of childhood experiences and object relations for personality development. Object relations refer to the mental representations of oneself and others that are formed through early interactions with caregivers. These representations influence how people relate to themselves and others throughout their lives. Psychodynamic therapy aims to help people understand their unconscious dynamics and resolve their conflicts by exploring their past and present relationships and emotions (Good Therapy, n.d.).
Additionally, Carl Jung was a pioneer of the concept of the Collective unconscious, which he defined as a layer of the psyche that transcends the personal and contains the Archetypes, or universal symbols and patterns of human experience. Jung also proposed that the psyche consists of various complexes, or clusters of emotional and mental associations, that influence one’s behaviour and personality. One of these complexes is the Ego, which represents one’s conscious identity and Sense of self. However, Jung also recognized that the Ego is not the whole of the psyche, but rather a part of it, and that there are other aspects of the self that are not fully integrated or acknowledged by the Ego. These include the shadow, which contains the repressed or rejected parts of oneself; the Anima or Animus, which represents one’s inner feminine or masculine qualities; and the self, which is the totality of the psyche and the source of Individuation, or the process of becoming a unique and whole person.
Based on these ideas, it could be argued that Jung would agree with the idea that humans are a multiplicity, or a collection of different selves that coexist within one psyche. Jung believed that humans are not static or fixed entities, but rather dynamic and evolving beings who constantly interact with their inner and outer worlds. He also suggested that humans have a potential for growth and development, and that by becoming aware of and integrating their various aspects of the self, they can achieve a higher level of consciousness and fulfilment. Jung did not see multiplicity as a sign of disorder or fragmentation, but rather as a natural and creative expression of human Diversity and complexity.
Internal Family Systems Theory (IFS) is an approach to psychotherapy that views the mind as a complex system of parts, each with its own Perspective, interests, and emotions. IFS suggests that humans are a multiplicity, Meaning that they have multiple sub-personalities or parts that can act independently or harmonizing with each other (Schwartz, 1995). IFS combines elements from different schools of psychology, such as systems thinking and the multiplicity of the mind, and posits that each part possesses its own characteristics and perceptions (Good Therapy, 2018). According to IFS, there are three main types of parts: exiles, managers, and firefighters. Exiles are parts that carry emotional Pain or Trauma from the past and are often suppressed or isolated by other parts. Managers are parts that try to control the internal and external environment to prevent exiles from being triggered. Firefighters are parts that act impulsively or destructively to distract from or numb the Pain of exiles (Schwartz, 1995). IFS aims to help clients access their core Self, which is the essence of who they are and has qualities such as Compassion, curiosity, and clarity. The Self is the natural leader of the internal system and can heal the wounded parts by listening to them, understanding them, and unburdening them from their Negative beliefs or emotions (Schwartz, 1995). IFS supports the idea that humans are a multiplicity by acknowledging the Diversity and complexity of the human psyche and by fostering a respectful and collaborative relationship between the Self and the parts (Life Architect, 2021).
Self-transcendence theory is a Perspective that proposes that human beings have the capacity to expand their self-Boundaries and connect with something greater than themselves, such as other people, nature, the universe, or a divine power. According to this theory, Self-transcendence can enhance wellbeing, especially in situations of adversity, loss, or life-limiting illness (Reed, 2012).
One possible implication of Self-transcendence theory is that humans are a multiplicity, Meaning that they are not separate or isolated entities, but rather interconnected and interdependent parts of a larger whole. This idea is consistent with some spiritual and philosophical traditions that view human nature as essentially relational and communal (Cloninger, 2004). However, this implication is not necessarily accepted by all proponents of Self-transcendence theory, as some may emphasize the personal or individual aspects of Self-transcendence more than the collective or universal ones.
The humanistic theory is a Perspective in psychology that emphasizes the individualized qualities of optimal wellbeing and the use of creative potential to benefit others, as well as the relational conditions that promote those qualities as the outcomes of healthy development (Bland & DeRobertis, 2018). Humanistic psychologists contend that personality formation is an ongoing process motivated by the need for relative Integration, guided by intentionality, choice, the hierarchical ordering of values, and an ever-expanding conscious Awareness (Bland & DeRobertis, 2018). They also employ an intersubjective, empathic approach to understand the lived experiences of individuals as active participants in the life-world, situated in sociocultural and eco-psycho-spiritual contexts (Bland & DeRobertis, 2018).
One of the implications of the humanistic theory is that the human mind is a multiplicity, Meaning that it is composed of multiple aspects or dimensions that are not reducible to a single Unity or essence (Bergson, 1912). Humanistic theorists say these individual subjective realities must be looked at under three simultaneous conditions: as a whole and meaningful, not broken down into small components of information that are disjointed or fragmented; as unique and not comparable to other minds or averages of groups; and as dynamic and evolving, not static or fixed (McLeod, 2023). Therefore, the humanistic theory suggests that the human mind is a multiplicity that reflects the complexity and Diversity of human experience and potential.
Behavioural theory is a theory of learning that states all behaviours are learned through conditioned interaction with the environment. Behavioural theory does not focus on the internal mental processes of the mind, but rather on the observable behaviours that can be measured and modified. This theory therefore suggests that the human mind is a multiplicity of conditioned responses that are triggered by different stimuli and reinforced by consequences. According to behavioural theory, the human mind does not have a single self, but rather a collection of learned behaviours that vary depending on the situation and the history of learning.
Social Cognitive theory (SCT) is a learning theory that emphasizes the role of Cognitive processes, social interactions, and environmental influences on human behaviour. SCT was developed by Albert Bandura as an extension of his social learning theory, which posited that people learn new behaviours by observing and imitating others. SCT adds that people also learn from the consequences of their actions, their own expectations and beliefs, and their Self-regulation skills. It argues that people are active agents who can both influence and be influenced by their environment (Bandura, 1989).
One of the key concepts of SCT is the notion of multiplicity, which refers to the idea that the human mind is not a single entity, but rather a collection of different subpersonalities or aspects that can have different goals, motivations, and perspectives. Multiplicity suggests that people can switch between different modes of thinking and behaving depending on the situation, the task, and the social context. Multiplicity also implies that people can have internal conflicts or dialogues among their subpersonalities, which can affect their decision-making and problem-solving processes (Hermans & Kempen, 1993).
SCT and multiplicity theory can help explain how people cope with complex and dynamic environments, how they adapt to changing demands and expectations, and how they develop a sense of identity and agency. SCT and multiplicity theory can also provide insights into how people can enhance their learning and performance by using various Cognitive strategies, such as self-monitoring, self-evaluation, self-reinforcement, goal-setting, and Self-regulation (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001).
Evolutionary theory is the scientific framework that explains how living species, including humans, have arrived at their current biological and psychological form through a historical process of natural selection and adaptation to environmental changes (BBC, n.d.). According to evolutionary psychology, the human mind evolved to benefit the individual by enhancing their chances of survival and reproduction in various domains of life, such as social interactions, mate choice, language, memory, and consciousness (Al-Shawaf, 2021).
One of the implications of this Perspective is that the human mind is not a single, unified entity, but rather a multiplicity of specialized mechanisms that operate in different contexts and for different purposes. This view is supported by evidence from neuroscience, Cognitive science, and psychology that shows that the brain consists of multiple modules that can function independently or in coordination with each other, depending on the situation (Psych Central, 2021).
The concept of multiplicity also has a historical origin in the 19th century mesmerism, which revealed that some individuals could manifest different personalities or identities under hypnosis, suggesting that the self is not a fixed or coherent construct (Wikipedia, n.d.). Therefore, evolutionary theory suggests that the human mind is a multiplicity of adaptive functions that emerged from the interaction between biological and environmental factors over time.
All of these theories show that many of our greatest thinkers have concluded that the human mind is a multiplicity of discrete intelligent self-aspects, which each can have their own character, values, motivations etc.
The spiritual Perspective
The idea that humans are a multiplicity has been explored from various spiritual perspectives. Some of these perspectives emphasize the Unity of the human spirit, while others acknowledge the Diversity and complexity of human experience. For example, Husserl (1970) proposed a phenomenological approach to the human spirit, which he defined as “the absolute flow of experiences in which all objective realities are constituted” (p. 168). He argued that the human spirit is not a substance or a thing, but a process of intentional consciousness that transcends the empirical world. Husserl also suggested that the human spirit can be understood as a multiplicity of intentional acts, each with its own Meaning and direction.
Bergson (1913) also explored the notion of multiplicity in relation to the human spirit, but from a different angle. He contrasted two types of multiplicity: one that is quantitative and discrete, and one that is qualitative and continuous. The former is exemplified by spatial objects and numerical concepts, while the latter is exemplified by duration and consciousness. Bergson argued that the human spirit belongs to the second type of multiplicity, which he called “duration”. He described duration as “a succession of qualitative changes, which melt into and permeate one another, without precise outlines, without any tendency to externalize themselves in relation to one another” (p. 100). Bergson also claimed that duration is the source of creativity and freedom in human life.
Another spiritual Perspective on human multiplicity comes from the psychology of Religion, which studies how people relate to the sacred or transcendent in their lives. Pargament et al. (2013) defined Spirituality as “the search for the sacred” (p. 23), and suggested that it can take various forms and expressions depending on the individual and the context. They also proposed a model of spiritual Integration, which involves the alignment of one’s multiple aspects (e.g., beliefs, values, emotions, behaviours) with one’s sacred goals and ideals. According to this model, spiritual Integration can enhance wellbeing and coping by providing Coherence, direction, and Meaning to one’s life.
These are just some examples of how different spiritual perspectives can shed light on the idea that humans are a multiplicity. Each Perspective offers a unique lens to understand the complexity and Diversity of human experience, as well as the potential for growth and transformation. However, these perspectives are not mutually exclusive or contradictory; rather, they can complement and enrich each other by highlighting different dimensions and aspects of the human spirit.
Research on the human mind as a multiplicity
Research on multiplicity has been largely influenced by the clinical psychological Perspective, which focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of DID and OSDD. These are considered to be dissociative disorders that result from severe childhood Trauma and involve disruptions in memory, identity, emotion, perception, and behaviour. According to the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD), DID and OSDD are characterized by the presence of two or more distinct personality states or parts that recurrently take control of the person’s behaviour, accompanied by amnesia for important personal information that cannot be explained by ordinary forgetfulness. The ISSTD provides guidelines for the assessment and treatment of DID and OSDD, which include a phased approach that involves establishing safety and stabilization, processing traumatic memories, and integrating the parts into a cohesive Sense of self (ISSTD, 2011).
However, not all people who experience multiplicity identify with the diagnostic labels of DID or OSDD, or agree with the Trauma-based aetiology or the Integration-oriented goal of therapy. Some people prefer to use terms such as plurality or polypsychism to describe their experience of multiplicity as a natural variation in human identity construction that does not necessarily imply pathology or impairment. Some people may embrace their multiplicity as a source of strength, creativity, or Spirituality, and seek to foster cooperation and Harmony among their parts rather than Integration, in this case, we would suggest, that cooperation is, in fact, Integration. Some people may also have different cultural or spiritual explanations for their multiplicity that do not fit within the Western linear framework of understanding the self.
Therefore, research on multiplicity needs to be more inclusive and respectful of the Diversity of experiences and meanings that people who identify as multiple have. There is a need for more qualitative research that explores the lived experiences of people with multiplicity from their own perspectives and voices, rather than imposing predefined categories or assumptions on them. There is also a need for more cross-cultural and interdisciplinary research that examines how multiplicity is understood and expressed in different contexts and traditions. Furthermore, there is a need for more collaborative and participatory research that involves people with multiplicity as co-researchers and co-producers of knowledge, rather than passive subjects or objects of study.
Some examples of recent research that has adopted these approaches are:
Eve Z., & Parry S. (2021). Exploring the experiences of young people with multiplicity. Youth & Policy. https://www.youthandpolicy.org/articles/young-people-with-multiplicity/
Ribáry G., Lajtai L., Demetrovics Z., & Maráz A. (2017). Multiplicity: An explorative interview study on personal experiences of people with multiple selves. Frontiers in Psychology, 8: 943. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00943
Stocks R.J.T. (2007). Toward an inclusive model of Dissociation: Exploring cultural factors in Dissociation theory development (Doctoral dissertation). University of Auckland. https://researchspace.auckland.ac.nz/handle/2292/2370
References and further reading
Good Therapy. (2018). Internal Family Systems Therapy. https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/internal-family-systems-therapy
Life Architect. (2021). Internal Family Systems Theory (IFS Theory). https://lifearchitect.com/blog/internal-family-systems-theory/
Schwartz, R. C. (1995). Internal family systems therapy. Guilford Press.
Theory of multiple intelligences – Wikipedia. (n.d.). Retrieved August 10, 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_multiple_intelligences
Armstrong, T. (2018). Is MI Theory Research-Based? | Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. Retrieved August 10, 2023, from https://www.institute4learning.com/2018/04/23/is-multiple-intelligences-research-based/
Boag, S. (2018). Psychodynamic Perspective. In V. Zeigler-Hill & T.K. Shackelford (Eds.), Encyclopedia of personality and individual differences. Springer.
Freud, S. (1923). The Ego and the id. In J. Strachey (Ed.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 19). Hogarth Press.
Good Therapy. (n.d.). Psychodynamic therapy. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/psychodynamic
McLeod, S. (2023). Psychodynamic approach in psychology. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/psychodynamic.html
Bergson, H. (1912). The idea of duration. In H. Wildon Carr (Ed.), The philosophy of change: A study of the fundamental principle of the philosophy of Bergson (pp. 1-32). Macmillan.
Bland, A. M., & DeRobertis, E. M. (2018). Humanistic Perspective. In V. Zeigler-Hill & T. K. Shackelford (Eds.), Encyclopedia of personality and individual differences. Springer.
McLeod, S. (2023). Humanistic approach in psychology (humanism): Definition & examples. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/humanistic.html
McLeod, S. (2017). Behaviorism. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/behaviorism.html
Lester, D. (2012). A multiple self theory of the mind. Comprehensive Psychology, 1(5). https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.2466/02.09.28.CP.1.5
Bandura, A. (1989). Human agency in social Cognitive theory. American Psychologist, 44(9), 1175-1184.
Hermans, H. J., & Kempen, H. J. (1993). The dialogical self: Meaning as movement. Academic Press.
Zimmerman, B. J., & Schunk, D. H. (Eds.). (2001). Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: Theoretical perspectives. Routledge.
Al-Shawaf, L. (2021). Evolution explains puzzling aspects of the human mind. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/six-impossible-things-breakfast/202107/evolution-explains-puzzling-aspects-the-human-mind
BBC. (n.d.). Evolutionary psychology. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/articles/psychology/psychology_5.shtml
Psych Central. (2021). How evolutionary psychology explains human behavior. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/health/evolutionary-psychology
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Multiplicity (psychology). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiplicity_%28psychology%29
Herman J.L. (1992). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. Basic Books.
International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD). (2011). Guidelines for treating dissociative identity disorder in adults (3rd revision). Journal of Trauma & Dissociation 12(2): 115-187.
Lifton R.J. (1988). Understanding the traumatized self: Imagery, symbolization, and transformation. In J.P Wilson et al., Human adaptation to extreme Stress: From the Holocaust to Vietnam (pp. 7-31). Plenum Press.
Parry S., Lloyd M., & Simpson J. (2018). ‘It’s not all roses’: A biographical study of a psychological therapy service for people with dissociative identity disorder. European Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 2(1): 37-47.
Şar V., Akyüz G., Doğan O., Öztürk E., & Yargiç L.I. (2007). The prevalence of dissociative disorders among women in the general population. Psychiatry Research, 149(1-3): 169-176.
Şar V., Akyüz G., Kugu N., Öztürk E., & Ertem-Vehid H. (2014). Axis I dissociative disorder comorbidity in borderline personality disorder and reports of childhood Trauma. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 65(10): 1338-1346.
Cloninger, C. R. (2004). Feeling good: The science of well-being. Oxford University Press.
Reed, P. G. (2012). Self-transcendence theory. In M. E. Smith & P. R. Liehr (Eds.), Middle range theory for nursing (3rd ed., pp. 105-129). Springer Publishing Company.
Bergson, H. (1913). Time and free will: An essay on the immediate data of consciousness (F.L. Pogson, Trans.). London: George Allen & Unwin.
Husserl, E. (1970). The crisis of European sciences and transcendental Phenomenology: An introduction to phenomenological philosophy (D. Carr, Trans.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Pargament, K.I., Mahoney, A., Exline, J.J., Jones, J.W., & Shafranske, E.P. (2013). Envisioning an Integrative paradigm for the psychology of Religion and Spirituality. In K.I. Pargament (Ed.), APA handbook of psychology, Religion, and Spirituality: Vol 1. Context, theory, and research (pp. 3-25). Washington DC: American Psychological Association.