What is co-consciousness?

Co-consciousness is a term used to describe the experience of someone with multiplicity, where more than part is aware of what is going on. For someone with DID (formerly called multiple personality disorder), they have very high levels of dissociation both in identity and memory, which usually means that they are amnesiac whenever a different part is out. Amnesia can cause distressing experiences such as not being able to recall important personal information (name, date of birth, home address), years of your life, or daily struggles such as ‘coming to’ in an unfamiliar place and having no idea how you came to be there. Some people are really aware that they are losing time or memories like this, others are in a kind of confused fog where until someone asks them a question – where did you get those shoes? when’s the last time you ate? what did you get up to on Wednesday? – they’re actually unaware that they’re experiencing amnesia.

With classic DID, not only is the person experiencing amnesia, but they are confused by evidence left behind while other parts have been out. Obvious things may be clothes in the wardrobe that are unfamiliar and not to their taste, family members upset about arguments you don’t recall having, friends who think they know you by a different name etc. 

Co-consciousness describes switching without this amnesia, so that if one part is out going about their day, another part is aware of what is happening. Multiples with high levels of co-consciousness don’t tend to ‘lose time’ or have blackouts, they’re still aware of what is going on. This is mostly how I function, although under stress my levels of amnesia increase. Multiples who have high levels of amnesia often find that to be one of the most challenging and frightening aspects of the condition, and for most, gaining some degree of co-consciousness is an important part of therapy and recovery work. This process usually starts by working on building self awareness and mapping your system

There is a similar but slightly different called co-hosting or co-fronting, which you can read about here: What is co-fronting and blending?.

Co-consciousness can work practically in a few different ways. For some multiples, it’s like they are seeing and hearing everything that’s going on, even though they’re not the one moving the body. For others, it’s more like being told what happened, or watching a short video of memories. I used to be confused as a kid that so many of my own memories are in the third person rather than the first – that is, I see everything happening as if I’m up by the ceiling, looking down on everyone including me. I’ve since discovered that this is an easy way for me to tell when I’ve personally been out running the body and when I’ve just been watching – co-conscious. My own memories are in the first person, co-conscious memories are in the third. This is different for everyone though! I can really struggle sometimes with new friends or in new environments, especially if it wasn’t me who has met them before or been there before. People sometimes notice me pause as I’m asking inside for the information and if I’m lucky whichever part recognises the person or remembers the event will quickly fill me in, or switch out and take over. 

Co-consciousness is incredibly useful, but there are downsides. One of them for me is the mammoth amount of energy it takes for us to track all the different information and memories and hand them back and forth. It’s like I have a whole house full of filing cabinets in each room, and on a busy day I’m mentally running back and forth between them trying to make sure we can keep up and still function as one. The experience of co-consciousness can often confuse multiples who have only been exposed to the ideas of psychosis or DID and don’t feel they fit either box. It can also be distressing to be aware of what is happening but not in control of yourself any more. As a kid I had a number of experiences that frightened me so badly I became convinced I was being possessed by the devil. I often felt at war with myself, trying to stay out and in control, and when I’d switch we would look in the mirror and I would be terrified at this face that was mine and yet somehow clearly not me. Co-consciousness can make you feel both crowded and painfully alone at the same time. These kinds of experiences are called Schneiderian first-rank symptoms and were once thought to be highly diagnostic of schizophrenia. Now we’re discovering they are actually very common for people with dissociation instead.

The technical stuff aside, what does it feel like to be co-conscious? Well, that’s different for different people. In fact, different parts of my system experience that in their own way. Whoever is out is often aware if they’re running everything by themselves or if other parts are ‘close to the surface’ and aware of what is going on. Sometimes those surfacing parts might comment or advise about what they’re observing, sometimes they might be struggling to switch or being triggered to switch. For example, I gave a talk at a locked ward in a psychiatric hospital a little while ago, and it was going well. We got there on time, with the notes and presentation gear, there was quite a group waiting, and we had the right part out who had written and delivered the talk before. There was a slight hitch in that a sad, lonely song was playing over the radio. Music can be a powerful trigger for me, and a sad lonely part was called to the surface by the song and immediately switched and came out. We were panicking a bit because this part could not deliver the presentation, and they knew that and desperately didn’t want to be there. We kept still and quiet and finally the MC turned off the radio to introduce us. Once the music was gone, that part dived back inside and the right part came back out to deliver the talk. Phew! Being a multiple can be very complicated.

My friend Hope has a wonderful description of her take on co-consciousness over at her blog:

Imagine a Combi Van, grab a handful of people and put them in the van. One of those people will drive the van, one may sit next to them. The passenger may just watch where they are going of maybe give directions. They may even pull the steering wheel to try and get the driver to go where they want. The rest of the people are in the back of the van. depending on where they are sitting and if the can see out the windows they may or may not be aware of what is going on and where they are going. They may yell to the driver to go somewhere or slow down. Then right at the back of the van, you may have one or two fast asleep totally unaware of what is happening and where they are going… (click here to read her full article)

For me, my poetry often talks about wells inside, very deep, or an ocean where we are sometimes at the surface and sometimes in the deeps. Here’s a short extract of a poem that describes co-consciousness:

I feel her surfacing 
like a scream rising
like a knot of tears
in my throat – 
Fingernails into palms
I fight to stay
I can feel her so close.

I catch him
glancing at my eyes
perplexed
and I know he sees her
I know they’re her eyes now
but still my face, hands, body
still me if I can just drop my gaze.

In the car, on the drive home, alone
she steps into my skin
wears it a little differently 
adjusts the mirror, tucks
hair behind her ear
weeps alone in the night
as I fall, like a star, and fade out.

For more information see articles listed on Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity, or explore my Network The Dissociative Initiative.

10 thoughts on “What is co-consciousness?

  1. A lot of this co-consciousness sounds just like simple emotions. People have emotions all throughout the day that can make them fall into a sad state. It can be brief and momentary or it can linger. It also depends on their emotional IQ. If they don’t have the skills to block emotions at times and carry on with what they are doing they can fall right into it. Just like depression. It all sounds like the same thing, maybe more ‘mood swings’ in DID. I’m not sure I can buy DID as ever being co-conscious. DID Is total separation, anything less than that is severe swings in thoughts/ideas/perceptions, but still one person aware of it all – and that’s the marked difference – awareness. So I don’t think the co-conscious DID Is actual DID I think its something of a different nature, still a mental illness but not at all in the same boat as not knowing where you are, how you got there, what happened the last 5 years, etc. But the mind can be a fun playground for those who are bored or distressed and need an escape. So no judgement on that, just need to name it something else more accurate and not associated with DID. Apples and Oranges being compared here.

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    • I hear what you’re saying. There’s a huge difference in the experiences of people with amnesia, and those with co-consciousness. So much so that it can very much look like apples and oranges.

      I approach this from a different perspective though, which is not about DID, but about multiplicity. DID is about high levels of multiplicity (the presence of more than one self) and amnesia. It’s certainly possible to have multiplicity without amnesia, but not DID, if you see what I mean. In fact, increasing levels of co-consciousness (by decreasing amnesia) is often a goal in therapy simply because amnesia can cause so many troubles for people.

      But it’s not as cut and dried as you’re suggesting here, a system can have some parts who have total amnesia and others who are completely co-conscious! And that may change over time or under stress.

      I agree that consciousness and memory have a connection, but they are not the same thing. I also agree that switching between parts can be very similar to having mood swings and may be triggered by or cause changes in mood. But the changes are also about self, sense of self, with all that comes with that – as big as gender identity and as minor as your preference in tea.

      If your mood swings cause you to change how you feel, what memories you find easiest to recall (as this is strongly associated with your emotions), and your energy levels, I agree with you. This is something everyone experiences, and definitely not DID. If it’s really intense then yes, it may be part of rapid cycling bipolar, or borderline personality or many ways rapid and troubling mood changes have been described in the DSM.

      If your mood swings involve changes in your sense of self, such as your age, gender, food preferences, left or right handedness, taste in music, skills and abilities, ways you relate to others, life goals, and so on, then this is multiplicity. With or without amnesia. Whether it fits the diagnosis of DID or OSDD or something else.

      Is that a helpful clarification?

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  2. Sorry for being a little dumb but I don’t know much about DID, although I’m pretty sure I have it, What Is a Core? Can someone explain this to me?

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    • Hey Kat, some people have a sense or are aware of one part being their core, original, or true self. The others have been created from or by or to protect that self. There’s a range of ways people experience and express the idea, I don’t mean to be vague!

      In some cases this core self is the one who takes on the leader role in the system, and unites the parts toward common goals. Sometimes the core self is very young and other parts grew up instead and they continue to protect it and live the daily life. Having a core self isn’t something everyone experiences, and even those who do can have different roles for that part.

      For some people the core self is the original or first part. For others these are different parts and the core self emerged or merged later on.

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  3. I nearly cried. I am an alter, and we do not have a core. I live this type of life all day, sometimes testing it, sometimes even scared when another alter isn’t close by. I just want to thank you for this, it was moving for me, I’m really glad you have your core, and I really hope everyone in the system works well together for your sake. That is our main task these days ourselves. Thank you so much for this post! I have something to show people!

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  4. Thanks so much for this article/blog. I’m not sure which. I have a lot of coconsciousness. Just beginning to learn when alters are passively influencing me. It’s so confusing. I like the van image. And I love the poem. Again, thanks.

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    • You’re welcome, it can be incredibly confusing at first. Fortunately we don’t need to understand it all and not straight away. I hope you find some peaceful ways to explore it all.

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