In some regards the human mind is a vast, unexplored frontier, every bit as uncharted as the furthest reaches of space or the deepest trenches of the ocean. We have only really begun to scratch the surface of how our brains and minds work, barely even begun to get at the answers to the questions of what constitutes self and identity. One case from history has proven to be a potent reminder of this, and it is a case that has gone on to show us just what a roiling, unexplored sea our minds can be.
By all accounts, Ansel Bourne was a rather unremarkable and unassuming man. A carpenter living in Rhode Island, he had a modest home which he shared with his wife, Sarah A. Woodmansee, and a mostly content, yet uneventful life. He was mostly known by neighbors as a fiercely atheistic man, denouncing the existence of God and refusing to go to church or even near a church, and he also hated ministers, including his next-door neighbor, Reverend John Taylor. This stood out among the mostly religious community, with one neighbor stating that “his mind was under the dark and apparently impenetrable cloud of unbelief,” but other than that there was not much to say about him and he mostly had a normal, some might even say boring life. However, this was about to change.
One day in August of 1857, Ansel was working on a house he was helping to build when he suddenly fell ill and had to be taken home by a friend. Doctors could find nothing physically wrong with him, so he was told to go home and rest. He would remain sick for the next few weeks, experiencing sudden bouts of extreme head pain and weakness that kept him mostly at home and bedridden, with him only sporadically able to work. On October 28, he was walking along when he had the sudden, overwhelming compulsion to go to the community chapel. It was very odd and uncharacteristic of him, and he was surprised that he would want to go there. Although he felt an almost irresistible urge to go to the chapel, he merely shook his head and mumbled to himself, “I would rather be struck deaf and dumb forever, than to go there,” before continuing on his way. Shortly after this, he collapsed.
He was found crumpled in the street and taken to his home by a friend, where it would be found that he was completely blind, deaf, and mute. The following morning, his sight returned to him but he still could not hear or speak, forcing him to communicate with his wife through written messages. He believed now that he was being punished by God for what he had said at the chapel, and so after several days, he requested in writing to see his neighbor, Reverend Taylor, to who he repented and said he was “determined to live for the honor of God.” After this he began regularly attending church services, and at one of these after a sermon he gave through written messages he raised his hands to God. It was at this point that he allegedly miraculously regained his sight and speech. A few days after that, Ansel claimed that God had appeared to him in a vision and said, “Settle up your worldly business, and go to work for me.” He became a pastor not long after that. This all seems strange enough already, but it gets even weirder.
Ansel continued his work as a pastor and seemed to have found some inner peace he had never had before. It was all much to the surprise of his family, friends, and neighbors, as he had always despised religion and loathed the church, so he was the last person in the world they would have expected to become a pastor. He continued his work for God for the next thirty years, becoming widely known for his benevolent attitude and unwavering faith. He had gone from a staunch atheist to a religious pillar of the community, and then one day in January of 1887 he just vanished without a trace. There was no note, nothing to indicate that he had been planning to go anywhere, he was just simply gone. A police search turned up nothing and it was as if he had just disappeared into thin air.
Two months later, on the morning of March 15, at around 5 a.m. a humble stationary salesman by the name of Mr. Alfred Brown was asleep at his home in Norristown, Pennsylvania, when he heard a loud bang like a gunshot and woke up in a strange bed in an apartment he did not recognize. He looked around and had no idea where he was or why he was there, and so he stumbled out of his apartment and passed his landlord in the hall, who said, “Good morning Mr. Brown.” It was a name Brown no longer recognized, and he told him that his name was actually Ansel Bourne, from Rhode Island. The landlord insisted that he was Alfred Brown, and that they were in Pennsylvania, where he had been operating a stationary store for the past two months. This was complete news to the perplexed Ansel, who still believed that it was January and who had no recollection at all of coming to Pennsylvania or opening a shop.
A local physician by the name of Dr. Louis W. Read was summoned, but he could find nothing physically wrong with Brown/Bourne. Bourne told the doctor that the last thing he could remember was that it had been January 17, and that he had withdrawn some money from the bank, paid some bills, visited the store of his nephew, and then headed towards his sister’s house in a horse-drawn carriage. After this his mind was a total blank. He had no recollection at all of moving to Pennsylvania and opening that store. A telegram was sent to his nephew, a Mr. Andrew Harris, who immediately went to Norristown and confirmed that “Brown” was indeed Ansel Bourne, who had been missing for the past two months.
William H. Salter, former president of the Society for Psychical Research, came to investigate, and found that under hypnosis he could conjure up the personality of Alfred Brown, who had completely different memories and no idea who Ansel Bourne was, despite the fact that they both inhabited the same body. Under hypnosis, Brown demanded to know what was happening and to be allowed to get back to his shop, at which point Salter switched him back to Bourne. After this, Salter was able to induce Ansel to assume the personality of either Bourne or Brown on several occasions, and neither personality had any knowledge of the other. Interestingly, although the Brown personality gave the same birthdate as Bourne, he claimed that he had been born in New Hampshire, whereas Bourne had been born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Brown also told of how he had a wife who had recently died, and did not recognize a picture of Bourne’s wife. Brown also claimed that he too had amnesia, and that he remembered little of his life before January 17, when he woke up on a horse-drawn carriage in Rhode Island. Everything before that remained murky and indistinct. Salter would say of the Brown personality:
The Brown personality seems to be nothing but a rather shrunken, dejected and amnesic extract of Mr. Bourne himself. He gives no motive for the wandering except that there was ‘trouble back there’ and he ‘wanted rest.’ During the trance he looks old, the corners of his mouth are drawn down, his voice is slow and weak, and he sits screening his eyes and trying vainly to remember what lay before and after the two months of the Brown experience. ‘I’m all hedged in,’ he says. ‘I can’t get out at either end. I don’t know what set me down in that Pawtucket horse car, and I don’t know how I ever left that store, or what became of it.’
There were attempts to try to merge the two personalities into one, but these failed and the two continued to share the same head but have different lives in a rare case of a fusion between multiple personality and amnesia. At the time the case made headlines across the country, and doctors and psychologists were fascinated by the whole thing. Ansel Bourne represents one of the earliest cases of a psychological phenomenon known as dissociative fugue, which is a very rare condition in which an individual loses access to their autobiographical memory and personal identity. Usually triggered by a traumatic event, the person can continue to function normally on a sort of autopilot, and do things such as wander around, go on trips or start a new life. The person essentially loses their sense of who they are, their selfhood, and in the case of Bourne, his mind had assumed a new personality, in an even rarer subspecies of the phenomenon, known as “dissociative personality disorder.” In short, Brown had emerged while locking away Bourne, who still existed but had been usurped by the new personality. But how could this be?
If you think about it, in a way we all disassociate a bit every day. For instance, you act differently when you are with your friends, family, co-workers, or boss, essentially becoming a different person depending on the circumstances and where you are. The difference between that and what happened to Bourne is that we have our memory holding all of those different versions of us together into a whole. But what if that cord connecting all of those selves were to be cut? Could your “friends” personality break off from your “co-worker” personality to become basically a new entity, with your brain filling in the blanks and constructing a new narrative and histoty for that new personality? There is not much research on this and it is poorly understood, but it certainly seems possible. Take away that connective tissue that is our memory, essentially our “self” and the nodules of our different faces we put on everyday become unfettered from each other, and the brain creates a new psyche for them in order to cope. Neuroscientists are increasingly theorizing that our self doesn’t even reside in the brain, but is rather a construct created by it, with the only glue holding it all together being memory. Psychiatrist and writer Ralph Lewis, MD explains of this:
The self is not a unified ‘thing.’ Rather, the brain is actually a confederation of independent modules working together. The vastly complex unconscious neuronal determinants that give rise to our choices and actions are unknowable to us. The brain conveniently constructs a simplified narrative of a unitary ‘self,’ the independent agent of all our thoughts and behaviors.
Essentially our idea of “self” is a malleable, nebulous thing that can be warped, twisted, or chopped into pieces, and the self is just a tool the brain creates to help us navigate the world, so perhaps the self can break into two or more other selves. The phenomenon is still not really understood, and is so incredibly rare that it is hard to really study, so it is really hard to say exactly how or why it happens. As for Bourne, he would go on to live his life normally and talk little of his strange experience all the way up to his death in 1915. In more modern times his bizarre case is thought to be the inspiration for the Bourne Identity series of books and films, in which a Jason Bourne is an amnesiac spy who has no idea of who he really is or why he is able to beat everyone up.
We are left to wonder, what happened to Ansel Bourne? What was the trigger for his fugue state and fractured personality, and is that what even really happened at all? How did he lose his identity and take up a new one, with both existing in the same body? Did it have anything to do with the strange religious experience he had had decades before? Whetever the case may be, the case of Ansel Bourne is still talked about in medical circles, and it represents a fascinating peek into the strange, uncharted frontier of the human mind.