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Robert Berezin M.D.

Personas: Cast of Characters in the Play of Consciousness

How other people shape our consciousness

Theater Masks with Permission TurboSquid
Source: Theater Masks with Permission TurboSquid

One of the most fascinating and central elements in the Play of Consciousness is the personas. The function of waking consciousness in the brain is the overall management of our human existence. The play serves our being and our functioning: our bodies, our physical needs, social relations, loving, and fighting, nurturance, our labors and our playing, our minds, learning, our sexuality, our imagination, talking, writing, reading, prose, poetry, music, humor, dance, the rhythm of our lives.

The play encompasses and is mapped for every human possibility. The central organizing focus of the human story is the self and others—the personas, the cast of characters of our lives.

As I have proposed elsewhere, the earliest two characters of the rudimentary play are self and mother. They coalesce in the brain from the womb and early infancy as two formless beings relating together by loving feeling, the Authentic Being, the original innocent presence of self, and the internalized Loving Mother.

The baby’s brain won’t mature into representational consciousness until approximately three years old. It has matured into the ability to create symbolic form through ongoing experiential memory. Do not confuse this with a homunculus in the brain. Consciousness draws upon all the disparate aspects of the brain where it maps vast networks of billions of interconnected neurons in memory creating representational figures.

The period of early childhood comprises the formative years. When a child is well raised with good enough boundaries and love, the quality of these internal relationships will create internal dramas of love and respect. On the other hand with abuse and/or emotional deprivation the personas of self and other will be distorted into darker plays of sadomasochism and lovelessness. The internal world of these individuals takes inside the darker images of the internal figures of other and self.

As our brain constructs our representational self in these plays, the image of the self is fused through the lens that we internalized from our parents. In these darker plays, the introjected images of the self are known to us as bad, or lacking, or worthless. This warps and defines our sense of self. This sense of self becomes our identity and is very much at variance with the Authentic Being. Formative personas write scripts that have such a powerful influence on our character formation. These personas of self and other will echo our character beliefs. Once established, we repeat the abuse. Consequently, people are prone to repeat either being the victim of abuse or identify with the aggressor and be the one who dishes out abuse.

Our brains receptively take in a full gestalt of people that we know and meet, not only their physical characteristics but their character as well. Of course the people we know intimately have the greatest mappings with enormous limbic specificity, meaning a full and complex set of feeling relatedness. We take in a gestalt of information about even casually known people.

I had a dream of playing the guitar with the Beatles, I was performing with John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Unfortunately, it was only a dream. But, nonetheless, I had a persona of each of them in my mind-movie. Each distinct: their postures, their features, their clothing, their voices, their music, their accents, their attitudes, etc. And I had never actually met them. This normal brain activity is truly remarkable. It is consonant with dealing with the social world.

My accuracy with the Beatles was no doubt not as keen as a representation of my closest friend. But it was all there. Clearly, my brain took in everything I needed to create these dream representations. It organized the information to expressively generate my dream of the four Beatles. All of us do this automatically, all the time. A miracle? No, ordinary consciousness. Some people have the ability to expressively mimic others. After having receptively taken in all the information, they can expressively do the voice, the posture, the vocabulary, the mood, the character of the person being imitated.

It is always a little unnerving to witness this ability. A person seemingly transforms from himself into somebody else. My son is an excellent mimic. He had promised a friend he’d try out for an acting part, never having acted. He didn’t rehearse the part of a lower class Englishman. He transformed himself into Keith Richards and read the part. And of course, he got it. The brain is a miraculous organ.

Once the characters of a darker play are established we usually repeat it one way or another. For example, I had a patient who lived in the projects. Her father was an irresponsible alcoholic who didn’t contribute money to the family. She met a man whose father had died when he was 10. He had quit school and worked to support his mother. He paid for the college education of his brothers and sisters. He worked two jobs his whole life. My patient was incredibly impressed with his sense of responsibility.

It seemed to be too good to be true. They married and had children. Within four years he quit working and never worked again. He was too good to be true. She was blind to the signs, due to her formative background. History repeated itself. She, in fact, thought she was marrying the opposite of her father, but it turned out to be the same.

Do you ever wonder how we come by having types of people we are attracted to, physical types or character types? The physical characteristics of our family are deeply embedded in the play. They bias us towards certain resemblances. The same holds true for the potential of xenophobia: similar resemblances, similar tribes, and cultures.

The other great stream of consciousness is REM dreaming. Five times a night we have a movie on our dream screen. In the context of regular sleep paralysis, we recreate physical bodies, set designs, landscapes, scenarios, and plots, all from our imagination fueled by personas that are created from limbic memory. If I see my dead grandfather in a dream, it is artifice, a hallucination, a representation of him. He is not there. It’s no different from seeing John Lennon. In dream consciousness, we believe what we experience and it feels just as real as in waking consciousness.

How does this work in art forms? It illuminates why people love their TV shows so much, good characters occupy a lot of mental real estate in our consciousness because our brains resonate with art dramas as if they are real. It's why we'll never forget Tony Soprano, or Arya Stark, or Wonder Woman, or Indiana Jones. Writers count on this. These characters live in our minds with our mothers, brothers, neighbors, friends, enemies, and the Beatles.

Receptive and expressive personas are a central focus of consciousness. They inhabit our plays of consciousness that corresponds to the scripts by which we manage our lives. For better or worse, formative personas write formative scripts in our consciousness that influence the rest of our lives.