People with “multiple personality disorder” – the rare condition popularized by the 1970s book and movie “Sybil" – tend to struggle with sleep problems that may contribute to their symptoms, a new study has found.
The new research, published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, challenges the long-held believe that “dissociative disorder” often results from extreme trauma or abuse, which causes people to have multiple personalities as a kind of psychological self-defense.
The latest study – conducted by experts from Binghamton University, Emory University and Maastricht University in the Netherlands – linked the condition to sleep problems (which in some cases may follow trauma), a patient who is highly suggestible to begin with, and a psychotherapist plumbing for blocked memories.
Many people with dissociative disorders do say they were abused as children, but that doesn’t mean abuse caused their condition, said Steven Jay Lynn, a researcher from Binghamton, in a release issued with the study’s findings.
Lynn suggested sleep problems may first disturb a patient's thought patterns. Under such circumstances, those who are suggestible to begin with might “weave together things they've heard, seen or read about with personal experiences, further blurring reality and fantasy.” If a psychotherapist encourages the exploration of past conflicts or traumatic memories, he said, such a patient might respond with memories that are confabulated with fantasies, reality that is tinged with delusion and personalities that appear so distinct they are mistaken for "alter personalities."
To reach their conclusions, Lynn and his colleagues kept 25 healthy volunteers from sleeping for one night and found they had many more dissociative experiences. “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.”
He added 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.” Also, he cautioned, “if your therapist is trying to convince you that you have multiple personalities, you should find a new therapist.”