This post is by Rachel Gunn, PhD student at the University of Birmingham, working on delusion and thought insertion.
After introducing the phenomenon of thought insertion in my previous post, here I discuss ownership of thoughts. The impossibility of immunity to error through misidentification (IEM) is an established notion in relation to the self. If I have something to say about my experience it is self-evident that I am the one undergoing the experience. I cannot be mistaken.
A subject experiencing thought insertion cannot be mistaken about who is experiencing the thought. Whilst this is true it does not explain what the experience is like. The thought is observed or witnessed by the subject, they have access to the content and have some sort of first-person experience of it. It is not, however, the same kind of experience that they ‘normally’ have. It differs from other thoughts – but in what sense?
A close look at the definition and at the phenomenology repeatedly highlights the sense in which the thought feels as if it is given to the subject fully formed and therefore not generated by the subject. In other words there is a lack of agency regarding the thought. However, a lack of agency does not seem sufficient to differentiate between other kinds of thoughts and thought insertion as described by the subject. After all, I have thoughts all the time that are not self-consciously generated – they just ‘pop’ into my head. I might sometimes wonder where the thought came from and it may appear to lack agency in some sense but I never have cause to deny that the thought is mine.
When experiencing thought insertion the subject passively observes a thought that has appeared to them from ‘outside’ and feels no sense of ownership of the thought. Alienonite (on the crazyboard website) describes her experience as “…thoughts that do not ‘feel’ like my own…”, Deli on Psychcentral says “I have heard voices before… it was very easy to identify that those thoughts belonged to another person – I wasn’t being forced to think them myself, just listen to them…” and Marion Aslan described a voice that was “…inside my head, though I knew it not to be me or my own thoughts…” (Aslan in Romme et al. 2009, p.238).
In their review article on thought insertion Simon Mullins and Sean Spence distinguished the phenomenon from other thought disorders through differences in ‘thought possession’. For thought insertion the ego boundary is intruded upon and the ownership of the thought is alien. For other phenomena, such as influenced thinking, thought withdrawal and obsessional thinking, the thought is owned by the subject. Waters and Badcock argue that there is good evidence that first-rank symptoms (all forms of passivity phenomena) do not selectively suggest a lack of agency. It is possible that ownership and agency are highly complex overlapping experiences and that they may not be easy to separate where passivity phenomena are concerned.
Looking at the evidence it seems that thought insertion proper is a passive, observational experience of a thought perceived by the subject to be different in kind from their usual thought experiences and identified as a thought ‘projected’ into the mind of the subject where the sense of producing the thought (agency and authorship) and the sense that the thought belongs to the subject (ownership) are both lacking.