The following is the modern clinical definition of dissociation.
Dissociation involves separating parts of oneself from other parts of oneself, be it sensory input or mental processes.
Dissociation is a protective mechanism that exists in nearly all people. In its most mild forms, it's a part of escapism -- when you get so absorbed into a movie or book that you stop paying attention to your surroundings or body, that's dissociation. Someone may walk up to you and say your name three times and you don't hear them. This is normal.
Dissociation can involve suspension of one's awareness of time passing -- you get absorbed into a task and don't realize how much time has passed. This is a mild version of time loss.
Dissociation can be a valid coping mechanism. When you distract yourself with something so that you can ignore physical pain, then you're dissociating from the portion of your body which is experiencing the pain.
Dissociation has a wide range, from exceptionally mild through all-out separation of one's mind into distinct portions, each with its own identity, personality, morals, ethics, goals, skills, memories, etc. When this happens, psychologists like to call it dissociative identity disorder. At what point it becomes a disorder, however, is up for interpretation. See Challenging Dissociative Identity Disorder for more about the controversy surrounding this.
The definition of dissociation has changed somewhat over the last century. Originally, dissociation referred to the rejection of aspects of one's own mind or personality that were deemed unsuitable or inappropriate. In the days when behaviour inappropriate for your gender or station warranted a diagnosis of moral insanity and incarceration in a mental hospital, a young woman who dreamed of a college career might suppress this "side" of herself in favour of a more socially acceptable role as devoted daughter, wife, mother, etc. Women who were diagnosed with multiple personalities generally presented with stress-related conditions such as chronic headaches, just as they did in the 1980s. Under hypnosis, the suppressed or rejected elements of their personalities could be elicited. If enough characteristics had been rejected, they might form an independent mind. This wasn't called an alter back then but a "persistent subconsciousness".
There was a good deal of the seance room in these early explorations (particularly in the Doris case, where mediums and a terrific battle between Good and Evil on the astral plane ultimately played a part). Freud's theories of Id, Ego and Superego, and Jung's ideas about Archetypes, played major roles in deciding what was going on with these young women. Physical and/or psychological trauma -- not necessarily in childhood -- was a frequent feature not necessarily in causing personalities to develop but in throwing an already existing operating system out of whack.
In the meantime, cases of dissociative phenomenon are very well documented throughout all sectors of humanity, from losing track of time, through the entire spectrum of dissociative phenomenon up to and including multiplicity. Trance states, self-hypnosis, hypnosis, and some forms of meditation can create dissociative states, and it's no coincidence that most multiples are highly hypnotizable. One common hypnosis trick is numbing someone by causing them to visualize a limb immersed in icewater. This is a terrific example of dissociation of a body part.
Caution about Hypnotizability
It is said in psychology literature that multiples are often highly hypnotizable, and studies show a very high correlation between dissociation and hypnotizability. Take extreme care about live hypnosis shows, live group relaxations or meditations, group past life regression, allowing a therapist to hypnotize you, etc. You must trust the practitioners and you must be certain that they will not accidentally or purposefully lead you down a path that you do not want to be led down.
Dissociation and Heredity
There have been studies showing a high correlation between members of the same family having high scores on the Dissociative Experiences Scale (a psychology tool for measuring an individual's proclivity towards dissociation). This typically leads to the question "Is this nature, or nurture?" and is typically followed by a twin study, where they look for the trait in twins separated at birth and raised in different environments to see whether both twins have the same trait.
A twin study did indeed find that being highly dissociative is very likely to be an inherited/genetic trait, and not simply a factor of environment.
It is also important to note that environment plays a critical role in developing DID, and genetic traits do not account for being multiple. See Born Multiple for more on the developmental environment and how it affects persons with a tendency towards dissociation.
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