Our Perplexing Parts – My Introduction to the State Model of Consciousness

I am intrigued with the concepts of “parts of self” and all ways that different theorists characterize them. Freud, for example, iconically divided the psyche into Id, Ego and Superego. Object relations theorists, such as W. R. D. Fairbairn, suggested that parts of the self “split off” to merge with the inner (sometimes bad) characterizations of parents (objects), Winnicott indicated that a child must frequently develop a “false self” to similarly align with the perceived demands of the mother.  Carl Jung’s model of psyche was clear that it was a multiplicity, including persona, shadow, anima/animus, elements of the collective unconscious etc. If these theorists are describing a universal truth about human consciousness and implications for human behavior, which I believe they are, then how does this dynamic of “multiple selves” play out in our lives?

In my ongoing attempt to understand the effects of attachment, trauma-related and dissociative disorders, I have gone further in this realm, as the divided self is strongly associated with these issues. I recently attended the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation annual conference in Baltimore, at which I had the good fortune to hear a lecture by Dr. Frank W. Putnam, MD expert on childhood trauma and one of the leading experts on Dissociative Identity Disorder (an area of great interest for me). His exhilarating presentation prompted me to purchase his book, “The Way We Are – How States of Mind Influence Our Identities, Personality and Potential for Change”.

In his book, Putnam puts forth a “state” model of psyche, or how the consciousness of individuals is comprised of a multitude of states. We are all born multiple, and infant research has proven what we can observe – infants switch from state to state rapidly, each almost a different “baby” – sleepy, crying, sleeping, disconnected, smiling etc. As we grow, our “states” increase dramatically in number and become personalized with our experience. We build up a portfolio of ways of acting, feeling and being in different circumstances, and influenced by different emotions. This portfolio is what can be characterized as “selfhood”. How smoothly we transition from one state to the other is primarily determined by the quality early caregiving. Secure parenting can teach an infant to transition smoothly, and have an undergirding of continuous memory of each state. This dynamic decreases with more traumatic caregiving, in which the states must learn to “split off” or dissociate from each other in response to perceived or actual life threatening situations, often losing the continuity of memory.

However, if everyone exists as multiples, even healthy individuals, certainly the state model has some implications for moral behavior. Why is it that we say one thing and act another? Could the state theory explain the paradoxical nature of human belief? If we are truly comprised of multiples, then maybe that can explain much of our perplexing behavior – even our conflicting beliefs. Pertaining to one manifestation of this, hypocrisy, Putnam states:

True hypocrisy does exist, no doubt. But it is also likely that many inconsistencies of character that we point to as evidence of moral failure actually represent examples of state-dependent identity, learning and memory organized around conflicting roles and identities – so the individual behaves in contradictory ways but is not troubled by the discrepancy. What at first may seem like hypocrisy and duplicity may be more complicated and less calculated than they first appear.

The state model would certainly explain why certain politicians are so inconsistent! But it also sheds a light on our own perplexing behavior and the dynamics of our relationships. Who are you in front of your boss as opposed to your best friend? I am sure we have all experienced our partners as totally different people from time to time – some who we like more than others. How often have we awoken after a struggling through a particularly hard time or a period of illness felt like a “totally new person”? Can you become a raging inferno of anger out of the blue and then 10 minutes later shamefully wonder who that was?


The great psychological theorists have some form of acknowledging the existence of parts of self, and the state model is a fascinating characterization that holds many implications. The state model is, as Putnam characterizes it, “a big idea – that our consciousness can be chunked into basic units we call states…” Yes, it is a big idea, a new variation of long standing theories, and a fascinating way to make sense of behaviors, often perplexing, of yourself and others. I am excited to pursue this idea further, and to discover what gems it will offer for the enhancement of therapy.

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