Cognitive Processing & DID


EXTRACT FROM BROWN’S ARTICLE – Consciousness, Cognitive Control and Dissociative Identity Disorder

Richard J.Brown, PhD, Clin.Psy.D, Academic Division of Clinical Psychology, University of Manchester

Different types of “dissociation” have different psychological mechanismsin Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 7, 7-28, 2006.

Sub-heading in the above article: Consciousness and Cognitive Control, in which Brown theorizes a cognitive model of Compartmentalization and Dissociated Identities (DID)


Contents of this extract:

  1. Description of the ‘cognitive architecture’ of the frontal cortex of our brain, as it pertains to the analysis of incoming stimuli & information from the external world.
  2. The analysis & processing of a familiar situation (automatic)
  3. The analysis & processing of an unfamiliar/novel situation (adaptive)
  4. How Compartmentalization might fit into this model of cognitive processing
  5. How Compartmentalization might work under traumatic conditions
  6. How the process of Compartmentalization might explain dissociative amnesia and the creation of multiple selves (DID).
    1. Childhood development of the ‘working self’ under normal conditions
    2. Childhood development of the ‘working self’ under traumatic conditions
  7. Bibliography of neuropsychology readings from Brown’s article.




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The contents of our consciousness represents a working interpretation of the environment in which we find ourselves. This representation is generated so that we can take control and act, for survival and the meeting of our needs.

This representation is generated relatively late in the processing chain. This presupposes that there is a ‘chain of events’ after incoming stimuli.

The generation of representations from the memory banks is preceded by extensive pre-attentive analysis of incoming information.


The Chain of Processing Events:

  • Receipt of sensory information
  • Simple perceptual analysis is triggered
  • Analysis represents the basic features
  • Analysis (representations) are encoded in memory (short term?)
  • This encoding triggers a parallel activation through related (ie, similar) representations within the memory system
  • This activation through the associative ‘memory banks’ is an interpretive process that produces a number of possible ‘hypotheses’ about this new input, based on previous experience
  • PAS : Primary Attentional System
  • The hypotheses about the new input are sampled by the PAS, which selects what seems to be the most appropriate account of the current situation
  • The PAS then integrates the chosen hypothesis with the relevant sensory information, producing multimodal units (multiple sensory elements). These are called a primary representations.
  • A primary representation provides a working model of the world at that moment, that can be used to guide action.
  • Primary representations are used to build a hierarchical network of behavioural programs (‘schemata’). These programs describe the processing operations required for executing specific acts.
  • At the top level of this hierarchy are programs for moving through general situations. Examples: ‘driving a car’, ‘going to a restaurant’, ‘getting ready for school’.
  • Within each of these high level programs are simpler schemata corresponding to specific acts within that general situation, such as ‘reversing’ or ‘ordering food’ or ‘putting on your uniform’.
  • Each of these schemata has simpler sub-programs describing the elements of that act, and so on down the hierarchy.
  • Current situation / Primary Representation. The current primary representation reaches a threshold level of activation, and the relevant program is triggered automatically. The associated behaviour is executed using the primary representation as a template of the current environment.
  • The individual is prompted to execute the appropriate behaviour within the chosen program, which will run to completion unless it is interrupted by other information within the system.
  • Automatic nature of this System – an efficient way to control the processing of behavioural systems in routine tasks and situations.
  • Terminology: automatic activation of ‘schemata’ is regarded as voluntary but unwilled. Processing at this level is perceived by us as effortless.
  • Terminology: this intuitive and pre-reflective nature of experience is called primary awareness.


Chain of Processing Events:

  • Existing network of programs unable to produce pre-reflective response.
  • SAS: Secondary Attentional System.
  • The SAS intervenes in the process and provides a bias towards activating relevant programs.
  • General-purpose problem-solving algorithms are activated
  • The SAS constructs goals, which are called secondary representations
  • The SAS analyses and manipulates the primary representations
  • These primary representations (a synthesis of input from the current situation) are subjected to focal-attentive processing and brought into the foreground of our perceptual experience.
  • The aspects of the current experience that are not being processed by the SAS remain in the background of our attention (perceptual background).
  • SAS processing in willed, effortful, deliberate and associated with a subjective sense of self-awareness (ie, an awareness of being aware), and this SAS processing is called secondary awareness.

This is the model that Brown refers to as ‘cognitive architecture’. The term cognitive architecture is a general term and covers many different models of human cognitive processing as well as computer and AI technology.


  1. Mismatch between actual, external events and our subjective interpretation of them.
  • The processing of the contents of an experience can be ‘over-determined’ by memory.
  • Thus the result, our subjective sensation and consequent interpretation of the event, can be influenced more by memory than we realize.
  • The discrepancy between the actual event and our subjective sense of it will not be experienced by the individual (at the time of the processing), as the processes involved in creating ‘the experience’ are not available to self-awareness. (Though may be analyzed later.)
  • Thus the individual may respond to and engage in behaviour that is consistent with their interpretation of events, even when their interpretation is incorrect.
  • [Example: the individual has caught sight of someone and interpreted who they saw as a sworn enemy, and reacted with intense rage, whereas in fact their enemy was in another country at that time. Or, a person extends their hand to shake yours, but because of traumatic memory, you interpret the movement as a hostile attack.]
  • This cognitive architecture model assumes that many behaviours are governed by the automatic activation of behavioural programs (ie, PAS) rather than by deliberate selection and control by the individual (ie, by the SAS).
  • Thus many complex behaviours can be performed with minimal representation in self-conscious experience.
  • There can be significant discrepancies between automatically processed behaviours and the self-aware goals of the individual.

2.  Inconsistent/incongruous memory retrieval and Compartmentalization

A. Review of the cognitive architecture model and how it might operate under potentially traumatic conditions.

All dissociative experiences that are of the compartmentalization type involve disturbances (misinterpretations) in the memory retrieval process.

These misinterpretations of incoming stimuli from an event give rise to ‘rogue representations’.

The type of compartmentalization (somatization, dissociated identity, amnesia) will vary according to the type of rogue representation involved in the retrieval process.

During the creation of a primary representation by the PAS, a perception of reality may be distorted due to an inappropriate selection from memory (inappropriate in the sense that it’s inconsistent with accepted physical reality).

This results in a distortion of the perceptual world that nevertheless feels compelling and true to the individual.

The acceptance of a rogue representation is followed by an automatic (not yet in self-awareness) selection of an inappropriate behavioural program that nevertheless feels logical in this processing sequence.

The individual experiences a behavioural deficit that is outside their willed control – because the behavioural program has been activated before the individual has conscious awareness of it (ie, before the SAS can intervene).

Examples: Amnesia may result from a program specifying inhibition of certain memory content. Paralysis may arise from a program inhibiting bodily movement. An experience of stiffness in the arm (triggering traumatic memory) may initiate a program inhibiting arm movement.

These examples help to explain the definition of compartmentalization which included the statement: loss of voluntary control over a process that normally is amenable to such control.

It is important to understand that the apparently damaged function or system (the hysterical blindness, the amnesia for an entire and recent event, the loss of movement in a limb) was operating normally before attentional selection by the PAS. It is only these systems’ output that is disrupted, not the internal working of the system itself.

Examples: The hysterical blindness in one eye: testing under laboratory conditions proved that the subject’s visual cortex was working perfectly, the part of the brain that allows us to ‘see’ was operational, and yet the person could not see. Under hypnotic suggestion the subject finds himself unable to raise his left arm, but the muscles of the arm are not impaired. A survivor of a traumatic event has complete amnesia for the details of the event, but under hypnosis is able to retrieve the information.

The symptom of the compartmentalization is generated at a late stage in the processing chain, either during construction of the primary representation by the PAS, or via the activation of behavioural programs consistent with that rogue representation.

IN SUMMARY: compartmentalization phenomena arise when the cognitive system misinterprets information in memory (ie, rogue representations) as the most appropriate account of, or response to, current circumstances.

The individual’s misinterpretation of events is driven by over-activation of rogue representations in memory. Any factor that increases this activation will increase the likelihood of the mis-representation being selected as ‘true’, and increase the possibility of a dissociative response to the event.

Such factors might be cognitive: such as catastrophic thinking and rumination, or emotionally motivated, such as avoidance of memory content, fear of unsafe consequences, etc.

Brown then discusses the case of ‘made’ actions, which appear to be similar to the ‘automatic’ behaviours made under hypnotic suggestion. My interest in the issue of ‘made’ actions, in the context of this website, would be whether there was a connection between such involuntary behaviour and the phenomenon of dissociative identity disorder and the ‘switching’ from one alter to another, where the ‘responsible’ alter experiences the actions of other alters moving her body and is unable to intervene and take control. Brown’s discussion, however, does not make this connection or suggest there is a link. He speaks of the ‘made’ action as being governed by activation of a behavioural program which may specify such elements as that it be experienced as involuntary because the act is contrary to the owner’s moral or social code.

B. The working self and compartmentalization in dissociative amnesia and DID

i/ The nature and development of the Self under normal circumstances.

Brown draws on the model of Conway & Playdell-Pearce (2000). They refer to the working self, and Brown applies their ideas to his integrative cognitive model, the model that is being discussed in this article.


The idea is that the part of the self that processes cognitive integration (ongoing processes of awareness, responses to input from external sources, emotional regulation, etc) can be conceptualized as a ‘working self’.

The working self consists of hierarchically organized goals in working memory.

The goals (in this discussion) are constructed to reduce mismatches and discrepancies between the current state of the system and the desired state of the system.

Such discrepancies result in negative emotional experiences. [Note Siegel’s definition of negative emotion as an emotional state that reflects that the system is moving towards lack of integration]

Negative emotional response is the motivating force behind goal development and maintenance. [“I don’t want to feel that again, what can I do to achieve that goal?”]

The working self, when functioning normally, can retrieve autobiographical memory and knowledge about previous events that pertain to the system’s goals.

This may happen automatically due to cues from the external environment (via the PAS), or by a deliberate retrieval plan (via the SAS).

Retrieval of autobiographical memory is strongly influenced by the goals of the working self.

One important goal of the working self is to limit the retrieval of memory that might destabilize the system (examples: memory that triggers strong negative emotion, memory that highlights discrepancies between one’s knowledge and one’s goals). The working self does this by creating a retrieval program that specifies inhibition of the relevant memory content. The unwanted content remains compartmentalized in the system.

Example of the normally functioning ‘working self’, dealing with a retrieval discrepancy:

Conflicting goals: to develop a romantic relationship, versus the need to avoid rejection at all costs.

Result of conflict: anxiety arises.

Desired Solution: reduce the discrepancy between these conflicting goals, by managing emotion, cognitive processes and/or external reality.

Strategies: 1/ functional and adaptive: adopt a more realistic goal about being rejected, using self-talk and mindfulness to manage the emotions; 2/ dysfunctional and maladaptive: avoid the romantic relationship, avoid intimacy, or manage the anxiety through self-medication such as alcohol.

ii/ The development of the Self under traumatic and chaotic conditions.

The example being used in the following description refers to a younger, developing child, living in an abusive setting, and how the process of compartmentalization might lead to dissociated parts of self and dissociative amnesia. The author is presenting this scenario as a hypothesis based on current knowledge of the human neural system.

The growing child has a fundamental need (goal) to be close to her/his attachment figures.

But also has a fundamental need (goal) to avoid physical and emotional pain and to feel safe in her/his environment.

It may be impossible for a child to reduce the discrepancies between these basic behavioural goals.

A possible solution might be for the cognitive system to prevent the simultaneous activation of the conflicting goals by compartmentalizing them in dissociated neural systems.

If this strategy were repeated in the same circumstances over and over again, separate goal hierarchies (or working selves) might develop over time, each comprising the goals and sub-goals associated with the conflictual goal in question.

Each goal hierarchy (or discrete neural network) would have access to the autobiographical memories associated with its particular goal, while memories associated with the conflicting goal would be unavailable due to absence of neural network links to that knowledge base.

This fragmented system of goal hierarchies could account for the gaps in time experienced by DID survivors who are on the far end of the dissociated identities scale. It would also account for the existence of multiple identities who have inter-identity amnesia.

Brown hypothesizes that where alter selves have access to the memories or consciousness of other alter selves, it is because their goal structures are not significantly conflictual.

The behaviour pattern of each identity would reflect the type of goals that were compartmentalized in conflict situations. [It is noted by therapists who work with this clientele that most alternate personalities (alters) are characterized by either a particular function, or a particular ‘box’ of memories. Ed.]


Additional comments by Brown

Therapeutic treatment for dissociative clients needs to take into account the two different kinds of dissociation. The idea that ‘one size fits all’ is invalid, as the biopsychological mechanism that creates the dissociation will determine how the dissociative effects should be reversed.

Amnesia: Amnesia is a symptom that crosses several borders. It can be present in ASD (Acute Stress Disorder), where it is one of the symptoms of peri-traumatic dissociation. It can be associated with both or either detachment and compartmentalization.

Elsewhere in this article, Brown notes that Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex PTSD exhibit dissociation of both types, detachment and compartmentalization.



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