Secret Worlds Inside of Us

Kerry Dawkins and Lilly Ghia-Wilberforce, 2017. Originally written in 2012, but never published.

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”
—Neil Gaiman, A Game of You

Right, let’s have a talk about subjective identities (yet again).

It’s not out of the ordinary for people’s brains to contain rich, detailed subjective worlds. MD and I (KD) discussed this in our 2009 article, ‘Subjective Lives’. Novelists, playwrights, poets, musicians and artists have them. (They’re not the only ones, either; we’ve only listed the people whose careers are often based on their mindscapes’ productions.)

We can conceptualise subjective identities and locations as being a bit like the ones that exist for authors, but with some important differences: the characters are independent and may not have a specific creator, and the histories, memories and places may have arisen organically within the brain that contains them. We suppose that some people could call it ‘imaginary’, but for us, our subjective histories and worlds are very real and important to us, even though people can’t observe them objectively. They’re rich and complex, and define us as individuals very clearly, even if others can’t see it.

The vast majority of us have identities that are rather different to the identity that we present to most people in daily life. We have strong connections to those identities and the memories, histories and traditions that come with who we are as individuals. There are certain things, for some reason, that make sense for each of us individually. It fits, in a way that’s difficult to explain in a strictly empirical, monistic way. It makes sense, though, if you recognise that individual identities – especially if they come with their own sets of memories and histories – in plural systems are an elaborate form of subjective self-identification. This actually isn’t limited to natural-origin systems; there are many DID/trauma-based systems who also have system-members whose characteristics vary drastically from the ‘original’, ‘core’ or ‘host’s’ identity.

These differences can include ethnicity, background and age. These differences cause problems for some people, as age, ethnicity and culture are strongly tied to physical or cultural factors. In a model of cognition that allows for subjective identity, however, individuals within a system can subjectively perceive themselves as being younger or older than the presenting body, or as having a different ethnicity. Some things just seem to fit. Some of us, for example, feel that they should be significantly younger than we are bodily. This doesn’t translate into claims that we’re different ages in the outworld, but that we identify with those age when referring to ourselves individually, and that we appear our own ages in our subjective headspace. Like characters in an author’s subjective world, we are different to the body that bounds us physically, even though we have autonomy, unlike many characters – that’s the difference.