I was recently asked how literal/metaphorical I consider the Internal Family Systems model of your mind being divided into “parts” that are kinda like subpersonalities.

The long answer would be my whole sequence on the topic, but that’s pretty long and also my exact conception of parts keeps shifting and getting more refined through the sequence. So one would be excused for still not being entirely clear on this question, even after reading the whole thing.

The short answer would be “it’s more than just metaphorical, but also not quite as literal as you might think from taking IFS books at face value”.

I do think that there are literally neurological subroutines doing their own thing that one has to manage, but I don’t think they’re literally full-blown subminds, they’re more like… clusters of beliefs and emotions and values that get activated at different times, and that can be interfaced with by treating them as if they were actual subminds.

My medium-length answer would be… let’s see.

There’s an influential model in neuroscience called global workspace theory. It says that the brain has a thing called the “global workspace”, which links together a variety of otherwise separate areas, and its contents corresponds to that what you’re currently consciously aware of. It has a limited capacity so you’re only consciously aware of a few things at any given moment.

At the same time, various subregions in your brain are doing their own things, some of them processing information that’s in the global workspace, some of them observing stuff from your senses that you’re currently not consciously aware of. Like you’re focused on a thing, then there’s a sudden sound, and some auditory processing region that has been monitoring the sounds in your environment picks it up and decides that this is important and pushes that sound into your global workspace, displacing whatever else happened to be there and making you consciously aware of that sound.

I tend to interpret IFS “parts” as processes that are connected with the workspace and manipulate it in different ways. But it’s not necessarily that they’re really “independent agents”, it’s more like there’s a combination of innate and learned rules for when to activate them.

So like, take it when an IFS book has a case study about a person with a “confuser” part that tries to distract them when they are thinking about something unpleasant. I wouldn’t interpret that to literally mean that there’s a sentient agent seeking to confuse the person in that person’s brain. I think it’s more something like… there are parts of the brain that are wired to interpret some states as uncomfortable, and other parts of the brain that are wired to avoid states that are interpreted as uncomfortable.

At some point when the person was feeling uncomfortable, something happened in their brain that made them confused instead, and then some learning subsystem in their brain noticed that “this particular pattern of internal behavior relieved the feeling of discomfort”. And then it learned how to repeat whatever internal process caused the feeling of confusion to push the feeling of discomfort out of the global workspace, and to systematically trigger that process when faced with a similar sense of discomfort.

Then when the IFS therapist guided the client to “talk to the confuser part”, they were doing something like… interfacing with that learned pattern and bringing up the learned prediction that causing confusion will lessen the feeling of discomfort.

There’s a thing where, once information that has been previously only stored in a local neural pattern is retrieved and brought to the global workspace, it can then be accessed and potentially modified by every other subsystem that’s currently listening in to the workspace. I don’t fully understand this, but it seems to be something like, if those other systems have information suggesting that there are alternative ways of achieving the purpose that the confuser pattern is trying to accomplish, the rules for triggering the confuser pattern can get rewritten so that it’s no longer activated.

But there’s also a thing where, it looks to me like part of what these stored patterns are, are something like partial “snapshots” of your brain’s state at the time when they were first learned. So when IFS talks about there being “child parts”, then it looks to me like there’s a sense in which that’s literally true.

Suppose that someone first learned the “being confused helps me avoid an uncomfortable feeling” thing when they were six. At that time, their brain saved a “snapshot” of that state of confusion to be re-instated at a later time when getting confused might again help them avoid discomfort. Stored with that snapshot might also be associated other emotional and cognitive patterns that were active at the time when the person was six – so when the person is “talking with” their “confuser part”, there’s a sense in which they really are “talking with a six-year old part” of themselves. (At least, that’s my interpretation.)

And also there’s a thing where, even if the parts aren’t literally sentient subselves, the method still becomes more effective if you treat them as if they were.

If you relate to your six-year old part as if it was literally a six-year old that you’re compassionate towards, when it holds a memory of being lonely and not understood… then that somehow brings in the experience of someone actually caring about you into the memory of not being cared about.

And then if your brain had learned a rule like “I must avoid these kinds of situations, because in them I just get lonely and nobody understands me”, then bringing in that experience of being understood into the memory rewrites the learning and eliminates the need to so compulsively avoid situations that resemble that original experience.

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Two of my partners had a literal diagnosed DID, while I myself can't dig up separate metaphorical parts even after trying, which leads me to believe that there is a spectrum of people between "not even metaphorical" to "it sort of makes sense to talk about an inner child" to "IFS reflects how my brain operates pretty accurately" to "I think I have mental parts inside me I have no control over" to "What do you mean by 'I'? This particular me that is writing this is just one of many parts that show up at different times and in different circumstances, sometimes in groups, sometimes in mixes, and I wish I had my own body!"

Iirc, Dr. Tori Olds also talked in one of her videos about it being a spectrum. And Scott's Ontology Of Psychiatric Conditions: Taxometrics talks about how most psychiatric conditions are spectrums, not binary "you have it or you don't". However, it doesn't talk specifically about parts/DID stuff.

Scott seems to be behind the times re DID. Most psychiatrists are, for some reason, despite the diagnosis being in DSM-V and in ICD-10. Therapists are somewhat less conservative. But he is certainly accurate about the continuum part. It's not a disorder unless it affects your daily life strongly enough, which is exactly what he says:

In my practice, I’ve moved away from asking questions like “does this patient really have ADHD”? Those kinds of questions make me feel like I’m trying to decode their symptoms to uncover some secret variable that could be either 0 or 1. But there is no such variable. Instead, I ask “how much trouble does this person have with paying attention?”. This is usually pretty easy to figure out; the patient will just tell me if I ask!

Likewise, I’ve moved away from thought processes like “If this person has ADHD, they genuinely need a stimulant; if not, they’re just faking”. Instead, I try to think of how much the patient’s symptoms are disabling them, whether a stimulant would relieve some of those symptoms, how likely the symptoms are to go away without an stimulant, and, based on all this, whether the benefits of a stimulant outweigh the risks.

Scott seems to be behind the times re DID.

What do you mean by this? To clarify, I was saying that his post wasn't making any claims about DID specifically.

No, not that post. I think there was another post on how a mental illness is a product of the culture which muses that DID is more frequent (and iatrogenic) when society accepts it or something. The post itself is great though, can't find it now.

Oh I see.

Going from "Parts" to "Self," you said the Self might be all the Parts processing together. (Capitalized "Self" means the IFS "Core Self.") How likely is the hypothesis that the Self is an artifact of the therapeutic procedure? When someone says they feel angry at a Part and claims that anger does not come from a Part but is their self, the therapist doesn't accept it. The therapist tells them they need to unblend. But when they describe the 8 C's and say that is their self, the therapist does not ask them to unblend, perceiving that as their Self.

Oops, never got around answering this question.

When you ask how likely it is that it's an artifact of the therapeutic procedure, what's the alternative hypothesis you have in mind? What would not being an artifact of the therapeutic procedure mean?

This fits with my experience well. I had a difficult childhood and possess a lot of engrams from it which used to manifest as dissociative subselves; never to the point of DID but for a long time I did meet the criteria for OSDD-1b, though I feel it was to a certain extent self-deception / larping, but how can you tell, really?

Anyway, point is, working with a friend of mine to explore these trigger patterns using techniques reminiscent of internal family systems and transactional analysis over the past few years, I have found that a lot of them are overgeneralizations from negative patterns in how my parents behaved when I was a child, projected onto other people.

But a few times - and we're still not sure exactly when or how it happened, because it didn't feel like anything was changing in the moment - she has been able to overwrite a few of them by triggering the hell out of me and then flipping the script by being loving and understanding towards the various versions of child-me that emerged.

In particular some hangups about intimacy that I have had basically my entire life seem to have mostly disappeared rather abruptly a few months ago, probably due to her influence accumulating over time past some sort of threshold. And it's been months since I last heavily dissociated.

Totally agree that IFS parts are best represented as beliefs (or clusters thereof), rather than 'parts'.

This reminds me of Alfred Adler's Individual Psychology. Adler believed the mind was monolithic— for example, he didn't like to distinguish between the conscious and the subconscious— and this is in part why he named his psychology 'Individual' (indivisible) Psychology. If there were to be legitimate IFS parts in the mind, or even if etiological trauma[1] were to truly exist, then the mind would not be monolithic.

  1. ^

    "etiological trauma": trauma from past events that hypothetically would determine a person's behavior in the present. 

    "Etiological" is as opposed to "teleological"— where 'teleological trauma' (note: no one uses this term except for me[2]) would just be "beliefs held in the present that make false/harmful predictions about the future".

  2. ^

    Though I did get this idea from The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga.