August 31, 2022

By Pamela Covert, PhD

Cartoon octopus reading book
Octopi. Octopuses. I don't care how you pluralize them; I just love them. But I never gave much thought to this deep-water creature until recently.

I was having lunch with a colleague who is an astrobiologist. I love the ocean, and I brought up that I was going to an aquarium. She said I should see the aquarium’s octopus show and continued to talk about how magnificent octopi are. Then, she mentioned a recent study (and TED Talk) determining how an octopus functions: each of the creature’s eight “arms” is covered in hundreds of “suckers” — and each of these suckers contains thousands of receptors (for comparison, human fingers only have a few hundred receptors). Essentially, each sucker senses its surroundings and sends the information back to the main brain of the octopus. Additionally, each arm of the octopus can move either with the main brain or independently.

At the time, I thought the study sounded interesting and moved on with the conversation.

It wasn't until a year later when I was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID) that I really thought about what my colleague was saying. Each sucker can be independent or work together with the main brain.

Seeing the Parallels

As I thought more about what my colleague had told me, I decided to learn more. Sometimes, I found, the tiny individual brains in the suckers do not agree, so the suckers and arms may act differently. For example, one sucker may think something is food, but a sucker on another arm may think it is a threat. So, while one of the octopus’s arms is wrapping around it, another arm may be pulling away.

The arms can do all this while bypassing the octopus’s main brain, meaning the main brain may not be aware of what is going on in the octopus’s extremities.

If you have DID or know someone living with it, this may sound familiar. One identity (also known as an “alter” or a “part”) may experience something that “main” identity is unaware of, or several identities may react to the same stimulus in opposite ways.

The comparison really struck me: the suckers of an octopus function much like the identities of someone with DID.

Coping to Survive

Those of us with DID have experienced this phenomenon at work. The host functions much like the main brain of the octopus. Two alters, like the octopus’s suckers, may not agree on how to handle a situation. Or one alter may not even know another exists. Each alter experiences the world in a unique way, and they respond according to their past experiences. However, the person may or may not know what their alters are doing — so the "main brain" may not be aware of how the "suckers" react.

Ultimately, the suckers, arms and main brain of the octopus work together for survival, and the octopus is able to thrive in some of the harshest conditions on Earth. Even though the various parts of the system may not all agree, they work together to protect and nourish the octopus. Without each individual sucker, the octopus would not be able to survive its environment.

That is exactly why we have our alters: survival. They protect us and allow us to thrive in harsh conditions. They each have their own experiences and responses to situations, but ultimately, they are present to help us thrive.

If we look at an octopus as a microcosm for how our own DID brains can work together, we can see how it is possible to thrive when alters disagree, even in the harshest conditions.

Understanding How DID Works

When I first became aware of and met some of my alters, I was scared. I didn't know why, but I found them terrifying. However, I eventually realized that my alters were a coping mechanism that my brain created to help me. Even though some may be scary to me, they are ultimately acting in a way that they think is best for "me." I discovered that one alter, who seemed like a monster, was actually created to hold my self-doubt and anger, which is why I react to it with fear.

But this alter is simply there to protect me.

Just like the octopus arm that pulls away from food because it thinks it is protecting the whole octopus, my "scary" alter was doing the same thing, evoking the flight response in order to try to remove us from the situation.

As scientists learn more about how the octopus and its suckers work (and sometimes, don’t work) together, I hope we can also gain a better understanding of how alters and DID in general can work as well.

Seeing My Inner World Work

The 2020 film “The Octopus Teacher” beautifully illustrates how the entire system of the octopus operates — and sheds light on my own experience. One section of the film explains the challenges of the octopus’s arms working against each other. I couldn’t help but notice that the situation feels similar to fighting amongst my alters.

Before I saw this footage, I was only able to imagine or speculate what it was like in the "inner world" of my mind. But right before my eyes was physical evidence of what happens, including how it feels when one alter shuts down or goes silent. It gets "cut" off from the rest, just like the octopus' arm did when it was attacked by the shark. But, just like the octopus, it eventually comes back and rejoins the group effort, doing its best to protect the whole being.

This documentary was life-changing for me. Getting a visual representation of how my mind works is liberating, and it has given me a deeper understanding of myself and my alters.

All because of an octopus.

Pamela Achenbach Covert, PhD is a writer and mother to two active little boys, and she has been diagnosed with DID. She has taught English and Public Speaking at multiple colleges and universities, and she also works as a blogger for where she teaches mindfulness strategies and meditation techniques to assist others with mental health concerns.

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