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Catastrophic changes – a case study

In the catastrophic changes post, I mentioned I had the chance to observe a large-scale catastrophic change for an extended period of time, from a fairly close position. While this is, of course, a case study (and at least some details must be removed to preserve anonymity), I still believe the case might provide some interesting perspectives into the whole issue I’m discussing.

Obviously, the case needs to be anonymized fairly significantly – I’ve already touched upon this person being a fairly close acquaintance, so it would be potentially possible to devise who I’m talking about through enough guesswork and search into my life and contacts. As such, quite a few details were changed. In some cases – as I rightly don’t trust the pseudo-random-number generator in my brain – I actually took a ten-sided dice and rolled on some options. Hopefully, this will be enough to randomize the description enough to make such guesswork ineffective.


So, meet X, adult male, the subject of a catastrophic change in personality, value systems, and the like. While I do not know everything about the case – I was not privy to all the possibly useful information – I will try to provide what details I can give. I hope it might be an interesting perspective into how such change can happen without severe damage obscuring certain brain functions.

Change Origin:

While most catastrophic changes described in literature come from significant and traumatic events – blunt force trauma, brain damage, traumatic stress, etc – in this case, there are no signs of some issues. The change, while significant, occurred in a fairly normal situation. The only possibly significant factor was X visiting the area they spend their teenage years in, around the period of the change. This is, however, a fairly common occurrence in numerous people who do not experience catastrophic changes, so it’s hard to pinpoint as the main source of the change. It might, however, been a mediating factor, so I found it worth mentioning.


Original catastrophe:

So while the origin of the change is unknown, we can say more about the change itself. What can be observed, in a very short period of time:

  • significant cognitive and emotional reevaluation of major parts of own life (for example: a job previously thought to be fulfilling was now considered as something they forced themselves into),
  • significant reedition of several major memories, going on for several years (this would relate, significantly, the reevaluation issues),
  • intensive change in hobbies, interests, and attitudes, both positive and negative – things really enjoyed before became a burden now, people who weren’t really liked become very close, etc., this was not a total loss of enjoyement, however, so no traces of depressive ahedonia or the like (for example, the person previously enjoyed painting in their spare time, and has now, for a long time, not touched their art supplies),
  • change in declarations about identity (both own, and in relation to other people),
  • significant behavioral changes, with little awareness of these changes taking place (when the changes were pointed to, the person tended to claim that they have always behaved that way, or, in a minority of cases, point to the change in identity),
  • changes in affect, expression, assertiveness and more, both generative and degenerative,
  • fairly intense potentiation of several negative childhood memories, as compared to a pre-catastrophe state,
  • there were no changes in the ability to plan, pursue long-term goals, there was a slight change in some behavioral aspects of conscientiousness, but these appear to be a result of reevaluating the value/affect of certain situations, not of a reduction in X’s conscientiousness in general,
  • no changes in other big five traits were noted.


These are all changes that could be noticed fairly easily and without much conjecture. My own personal interpretation of the situation ads another layer here – a significant reorganization of the person’s subpersonalities. One of the major subpersonalities X has had appears to have disappeared completely, with all its behavioral, affective and cognitive aspects. Another subpersonality, previously almost unused, appears to have been promoted to a major role, coordinating the new system. This seems congruent with numerous of the observed changes. A vast majority of the behavioral patterns, values, etc. undergoing change were associated with the “removed” subpersonality. This would also be a handy explanation for changes in memory. (I’m following Rita Carter’s line of reasoning here, where subpersonalities are a direct result of sub-networks of similar memories, highly interconnected internally and with a limited external connection.)


The important thing to realize about the whole process is this – while people around X noticed the change, X himself was mainly unaware of it. If he admitted to a change – and in many areas, he did not – he claimed it was a result of some thoughts they had about an issue. They themselves did not notice a large-scale shift in personality, values, etc. that has occurred. A sense of permanence was kept.


This is not as unexpected, as could be thought of. After all, the sense of permanence is one of the major facets of our conscious experience. It tends to require quite a bit of cognitive effort for us to agree that we have, in fact, changed in some way or another, over a long period of time.


Furthermore, if my subpersonalities interpretation of the catastrophe is correct, then, from the perspective of the newly dominant subpersonality, little has actually changed. It would, after all, have a very limited account of how it worked when the “removed” subpersonality was dominant, as few of these memories would be connected. In fact, what could be expected was the perception of some of these memories at times when the person “acted against themselves”. Such a perception was in fact confirmed.


Long-term results of catastrophe:

One of the most prominent changed observed over the long term was a very strong tendency to interpret any and all information in congruence with the expectations of the new attitudes. Information not fitting the pattern was either attempted to be explained away and rationalized, reinterpreted, or, if impossible, discarded or dismissed. While not reaching the absurd levels described in anosognosia cases, this was a noted and easily observable pattern of cognitive functioning. Whether it resulted from actually increased right parietal lobe activity (or, conversely, reduced left parietal lobe activity), or if the catastrophic nature of the change simply left far more “rough edges” around X’s personal history, is an interesting question in itself. With the level of change in personal history and such, both explanations – neurological and systemic – seem valid.


After more than a year, some patterns of behavior or speech associated with the “removed” subpersonality have started to arise in other contexts and subpersonalities, but at a level far below anything previously present. Throughout this whole time, no signs of the “removed” subpersonality have actually appeared. Interestingly enough, X himself was at some situations convinced he displays the behavioral traits of the “removed” subpersonality while displaying little or none of them to the outside world. This brings to mind the classic Ariely and Loewenstein study about people having problems predicting their behaviors in different states, although in this case, it would be a retroactive situation – a person in one subpersonality underestimating the level of change it takes for them to access a different subpersonality.


The changes in hobbies, affects, etc. remain fairly permanent over the time period, with one or two remissions to pre-catastrophe states, but the majority of the system remains stable in the new state.


X’s motivations and goals, while different from the pre-catastrophe situation, remained fairly fluid and changing throughout the time period, at least as seen from the outside and explained by X. It is hard to say whether this is a side effect of the new, post-catastrophic structure still not finding a stable state, or if such variability is an element of a new, stable postcatastrophic state X arrived at.


The changes in accessible memories and behaviors appear stable, with the slight variations of the “old subpersonality patterns” mentioned above.



On a personal note:

I tend to describe the fairly direct experience of this catastrophe as both fascinating and terrifying. As someone interested in neurology and personal change it was amazing to watch such an intense change so closely and over such a period of time.

At the same time, on a personal level, it was quite terrifying and disturbing. This was after all someone I knew. We do after all expect personality permanence (or, at least, “range-of-subpersonalities” permanence) in the people we know, it is one of the undeclared bases of our social contract. To see such permanence disappear, in a person one knows personally, without – it would seem at lest on the outside – any good reason for it… Well, it was highly disturbing. In fact, I have no doubt that the attempt to describe it as a case study is, for me, a kind of a coping mechanism with the situation – its potential informative value notwithstanding.

That being said, I do hope this might be an interesting bit of data to mull over.