A role for ownership and authorship in the analysis of thought insertion

Phenom Cogn Sci (2009) 8:205–224
DOI 10.1007/s11097-008-9109-z
A role for ownership and authorship in the analysis
of thought insertion
Lisa Bortolotti & Matthew Broome
Published online: 27 August 2008
# Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2008
Abstract Philosophers are interested in the phenomenon of thought insertion
because it challenges the common assumption that one can ascribe to oneself the
thoughts that one can access first-personally. In the standard philosophical analysis
of thought insertion, the subject owns the ‘inserted’ thought but lacks a sense of
agency towards it. In this paper we want to provide an alternative analysis of the
condition, according to which subjects typically lack both ownership and authorship
of the ‘inserted’ thoughts. We argue that by appealing to a failure of ownership and
authorship we can describe more accurately the phenomenology of thought insertion,
and distinguish it from that of non-delusional beliefs that have not been deliberated
about, and of other delusions of passivity. We can also start developing a more
psychologically realistic account of the relation between intentionality, rationality
and self knowledge in normal and abnormal cognition.
Keywords Authorship of thoughts . Self-knowledge . First-person authority .
Thought insertion . Rationality . Ownership of thoughts . Intentionality . Self-ascription
In the recent philosophical and psychological literature (Moran 2001; Velleman
2005; McAdams 2001; Wegner 2002; Wilson 2002), renewed attention has been
drawn to the relationship between rationality, intentionality and self knowledge. In
this paper we want to explore this relationship within psychopathology and provide
L. Bortolotti (*)
Philosophy Department, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston B15 2TT, UK
e-mail: [email protected]
M. Broome
Health Sciences Research Institute, Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick,
Coventry CV4 7AL, UK
e-mail: [email protected]
L. Bortolotti, M. Broome
an analysis of thought insertion according to which subjects affected by this
condition lack self knowledge.1 We argue that this failure of self knowledge consists
in failing to ascribe to oneself a thought that is accessed first-personally and in
failing to either endorse the content of that thought with reasons or manifest
commitment towards it in behaviour. These failures have effects on the construction
of the subject’s self image and, ultimately, the exercise of autonomous thought and
action. The long-term research project of identifying failures of self knowledge in
people affected by thought insertion and detecting the consequences of such failures
will prove fruitful in two ways: (1) it will help us gain a better understanding of how
the capacities for self knowledge, and rationality are interrelated in normal and
abnormal cognition, and especially of whether they should be regarded as necessary
conditions for the ascription of beliefs and other intentional states; and (2) it will
provide a framework for assessing the degree of personal autonomy and
responsibility of subjects affected by delusions in relation to those instances of
behaviour that are consistent with or caused by their delusional states.
But there are also some immediate benefits in adopting the analysis of thought
insertion we put forward. In this paper, we have three main objectives: (1) analyse
the condition in a way that is compatible with the phenomenology of typical
delusional reports; (2) distinguish between the experience of ‘inserted’ thoughts and
ordinary thoughts; ‘inserted’ thoughts and ‘controlled’ thoughts; and ‘inserted’
thoughts and alien movements; (3) clarify the sense in which thought insertion
constitutes an impairment of self knowledge. According to our analysis of thought
insertion, the breakdown of self knowledge is manifested not just in the sense that
one’s personal boundaries have been violated, but especially in the failure to ascribe
reported thoughts to oneself and to express a genuine commitment to their content.
The ‘inserted’ thoughts can be accessed directly, but are neither acknowledged as
one’s own nor endorsed on the basis of reasons.
Psychopathology and self knowledge
Individuals with delusions vary widely in terms of the commitment they express to
the content of their delusional states. In some cases, they acknowledge the reported
delusional beliefs as their own and they are prepared to justify them with reasons
(Bortolotti and Broome, forthcoming), although the reasoning behind the justification provided might be affected by biases such as jumping to conclusions. Both
subjects with delusions and subjects at high risk of psychosis seem to be vulnerable
to these reasoning biases (Broome et al. 2005, 2007).
A subject suffering from persecutory delusions may be able to justify the belief
that people around her are hostile by reference to episodes in which she was avoided
or looked at in a way that she perceived as contemptuous. She may give some
reasons in support of her beliefs and behave in such a way that manifests her
commitment to the truth of the reported belief contents: she appears to be concerned
and under stress, she loses sleep, she develops suspicion towards strangers, and so
For similar projects, see the presentations by Fernández and Pickard at the Delusions and Self
Knowledge workshop in Bristol in February 2008.
A role for ownership and authorship
on. Such a subject can be said to be both the owner and the author of her beliefs.
She owns the belief that others are hostile, because she can acknowledge it as her
own and ascribe it to herself, and she is the author of that belief, because she is in a
position to provide reasons for supporting it.
In other delusions, the very capacity for ownership and authorship of thought is
compromised. When suffering from the Cotard delusion,2 subjects report beliefs that
are not well integrated with other beliefs they have—for instance they may assert
that they are dead, but when asked where they are, they report that they are in a
hospital bed receiving visits from their relatives. In other types of delusions, subjects
seem unable to support their reported belief with reasons—not even bad reasons.
For instance, consider a young man who is absolutely convinced that all the songs
played on the radio are sung by him but cannot justify his conviction nor explain
how such an extraordinary fact can happen (Yager and Gitlin 2005, page 978).
Finally, subjects may report beliefs that do not have the expected action-guiding role.
For instance, a man with Capgras syndrome3 may report to believe that his wife has
been replaced by an impostor and yet show no signs of distress, manifesting no
intention to go and look for his missing spouse.
Why should we map psychopathologies in terms of whether ownership and
authorship are preserved? In cognitive neuropsychology the methodological
assumption guiding many empirical studies is that an explanation of what makes a
belief pathological can shed light on the mechanisms underlying ordinary cognition.
This approach is useful in the context of an empirically informed analysis of the
conditions for intentionality and rationality. The capacities to own and author
reported beliefs are typically taken for granted. But when these capacities are not
manifested in a subject’s observed behaviour, both the rationality of the reported
beliefs and the subject’s first-person authority over them are challenged. In some
extreme cases, the subject’s behaviour cannot be described in intentional terms, or
the only beliefs that can be ascribed to her have indeterminate content,
compromising intentional explanation and prediction of behaviour (Bortolotti 2004).
Thus, ownership and authorship determine how intentionality and self knowledge
are ascribed. These ascriptions, in turn, have implications for individual and societal
attitudes towards those subjects whose behaviour cannot be described in intentional
terms. The characterisation of behaviour via the ascription of beliefs is central to the
conception of the subject as an intentional agent able to act on the basis of what she
believes in order to achieve her goals; and affects the subject’s capacity to form a
coherent narrative conception of herself. If the subject does not see the thoughts she
can access first-personally as her own, they won’t be integrated in her system of
beliefs, desires and long-term goals which guides her future behaviour and
contributes to the creation of a coherent self narrative.
Typically people suffering from Cotard’s syndrome believe that they are dead, or have other nihilistic
delusions, e.g. about parts of their bodies missing, or the world no longer existing. Berrios and Luque
(1995) have analysed many such cases.
Capgras syndrome involves the belief that a dear one has been replaced by an impostor and is due to
abnormality of perception of familiar faces. For more details about Capgras syndrome, see Stone and
Young (1997).
L. Bortolotti, M. Broome
In this paper we want to set the conceptual foundations for addressing some of
these issues. We shall focus exclusively on the analysis of the phenomenon of
thought insertion. In thought insertion subjects experience a thought as foreign. This
experience is accompanied by a story about how the thought has been inserted from
without. This condition is usually analysed in the literature in terms of a subject
having ownership of a thought towards which she fails to experience a sense of
agency. In other words, subjects introspect and find that there is a thought in their
minds which they feel they have not themselves voluntarily produced.
We find the characterisation of thought insertion in terms of a loss of the sense of
agency with respect to a reported thought unsatisfactory. It fails to provide a distinct
account of the phenomenology of ‘inserted’ thoughts from that of either ordinary
thoughts whose content has not been the object of explicit deliberation or other thoughts
that are perceived as controlled by forces outside the subject. Moreover, the plausibility
of the standard analysis relies on the dubious analogy between the passivity experienced
in disorders of activity and that experienced in disorders of thinking.
The claim that ownership is preserved is also problematic, given that the subject
affected by thought insertion is often radically alienated from the thought she reports.
Those who argue that ownership is preserved in thought insertion deploy a notion of
ownership primarily characterised by the spatiality condition, i.e. the capacity to locate
a thought within the subject’s personal boundaries. This notion of ownership has a
number of limitations. It is too weak, as it allows for someone to own a thought that
cannot be self ascribed; and it relies for its intelligibility on a metaphor (i.e. the mind as
a container with thoughts as material objects occupying that space) that is at best
controversial, both as a psychologically realistic image of how the mind works and as
a naïve image of how laypeople conceive of their minds as working.
We shall articulate these objections in more detail (in “Thought insertion as a
failure of self ascription” and “Thought insertion as failure of endorsement”). But
before we can challenge the standard analysis of thought insertion and offer an
alternative, we need to say more about what authorship and ownership are (in
“Authorship and reason giving”, “Owning, endorsing and producing thoughts” and
“Thought insertion and two notions of ownership”). This is an especially important
task, because these notions have been used to refer to different capacities in different
philosophical and psychological research programmes.
Authorship and reason giving
There is a sense in which people are the authors of a story that they recognise
as a story about themselves. The implications of these self narratives have been
related to metaphysical questions about the nature of the self. For instance, starting
from a critical review of Daniel Dennett’s fictional view of the self (Dennett 1992),
David Velleman (2005) characterises autonomy and self determination in terms of
self constitution. The leading character in the story one tells about oneself and the
narrator start out as significantly different entities, as the narrator is often vulnerable
to self-attribution biases and tends to rationalise the actions and decisions the leading
character is responsible for. That said, narrator and narration are ‘mutually determining’,
as Velleman elegantly puts it. The events in one’s life affect the story one tells about
A role for ownership and authorship
oneself, but at the same time that story affects future behaviour by contributing to
creating a self image one might want to adhere to or to take distance from. The story can
also be told ahead, and therefore play the role of a self fulfilling prediction.
Let’s use a concrete example and construct it in such a way that it is not an
example of self deception or weakness of will. Patrick’s story about why he filed for
divorce can be different from the way in which his friends explain his decision. He
might justify his decision as motivated by the incompatibility of character between
himself and his spouse, whereas his friends believe that he chose this course of
action because he fell in love with someone he met at work. First-person and thirdperson accounts of behaviour often diverge for at least two important reasons.
Patrick knows things about what he thinks and how he feels that others can only
infer by observing his behaviour. He has some prima facie epistemic advantage over
his friends, given by direct access to the content of some of his mental states.
Moreover, Patrick is vulnerable to different attribution and reasoning biases from the
ones that affect his friends. For instance, Patrick is exposed to self-attribution biases
when he reflects upon his own dispositions, personality traits, past history, likelihood
of success, and so on. Hence, access to the content of his mental states is not entirely
transparent, but rather, his knowledge of his own reasons is refracted through such
biases. It is not easy to determine which story is the correct one if conflict between
first- and third- person accounts emerges, and it is equally hard to come up with
criteria of correctness for the ascription of mental states to people, given that
psychological explanations for action are often complex and dispositions, traits, even
biases are malleable.
The notion of authorship as developed by Moran (2001) suggests that, independent
of whether Patrick’s story is closer to the truth than a third-person account, there is
something special about Patrick giving reasons for his decision. Engaging in the
reason-giving exercise allows him to take the perspective of a deliberator. Patrick
sees his decision as the right decision (unless he is weak willed or self deceived)
because he has come to it, or endorsed it, on the basis of what he takes to be the best
reasons available to him. The interesting claim that Moran makes is that by
authoring his decision, by deliberating about it or being able to justify it with
reasons, Patrick acquires some sort of first-personal authority over the content of the
decision. He comes to know the content of his decision, and that he made a decision
with that content, not just by observing his own behaviour or by introspection, but
by reflecting on the reasons that make his decision the right one in his own eyes.
Moran’s message is not that authorship replaces other forms of self knowledge or
that it is more fundamental, but that it supplements them in a very significant way. The
point is that self knowledge is not exhausted by direct epistemic access and self
interpretation of behaviour. Self insight into some mental states, such as beliefs about
issues that are central to one’s concerns and interests, can be questioned if the content
of those states is not something the subject deliberates about, or justifies on the basis
of reasons. Reason giving offers an additional route to the knowledge of the content of
one’s mental states and to the knowledge that one has mental states with that content.
If it is possible for a person to answer a deliberative question about his belief at
all, this involves assuming an authority over, and a responsibility for, what his
belief actually is. Thus a person able to exercise this capacity is in a position to
L. Bortolotti, M. Broome
declare what his belief is by reflection on the reasons in favor of that belief, rather
than by examination of the psychological evidence. In this way […] avowal can
be seen as an expression of genuine self-knowledge (Moran 2004, 425).
Implicit in what we have just said is that authorship does not equally apply to all
conscious mental states. Some mental states are not candidates for authorship or can
be authored only to a very limited extent, as one does not typically deliberate upon
or justify the content of a merely perceptual belief. We would not think that Patrick
had self knowledge with respect to the claim that filing for divorce is the best course
of action for him, unless Patrick were in a position to defend that claim with reasons.
But we would not say the same about other conscious mental states of Patrick. His
being hungry or his seeing a car parked in front of the post office are states that he
can authoritatively report without giving reason for them; it is not so clear what it
would mean to ‘endorse’ them, other than acting in a way that is compatible with
their being true.
The endorsement of an opinion or a conscious decision, which are good
candidates for authorship, can be a matter of degree and seems to vary together with
the significance of those attitudes for the subject reporting them. Some decisions
seem to be for many people central to their self narratives, such as which subject to
study at university, whether to get married or to separate from their spouses, or
which charitable foundation to support. Other decisions, such as what to eat for
breakfast one morning, are likely to be marginal and are not likely to be retained as
evidence for a certain self image. Of course, this attribution of importance varies
across individuals and contexts. Events that for some people are marginal and
unimportant can be central to other people’s self images: if Patrick’s self-image is
that of a decadent languid aesthete, then eating quails’ eggs and sipping champagne
in a silk dressing gown at breakfast time may be more important in defining what
type of person he is than the reasons why he is getting a divorce. This point needs to
be kept in mind when we turn our attention to delusional states and attempt to
determine the extent to which delusional states are authored, as people reporting
delusions often ascribe significance (and self-referring significance) to episodes that
appear to others as trivial or merely coincidental.
Judgements of authorship will be affected not just by the type of attitude, but also
by the way in which attitudes are formed and reported. There are beliefs that one just
‘inherits’ and beliefs that one carefully deliberates over. If one accepts that an
available piece of information is true without checking the reliability of its source or
without having any reason for endorsing that truth, one can still be said to believe
that content, but does not satisfy the conditions for being the author of the belief.
The belief remains a candidate for authorship, but the possibility of authoring it
hasn’t been made actual. For instance, a subject can be said to believe that the effects
of global warming are irreversible and yet fail to be the author of that belief if she is
in no position to defend its content.
Some beliefs are such that, just by having them, one is expected to be in a
position to offer some justification for them, because they have a special role in
one’s conception of oneself and other attitudes and actions seem to hang on them.
For instance, if someone who was born and has always lived in England reports the
belief that it is best for her to move to Egypt, then that person is expected to have
A role for ownership and authorship
some reasons for the belief, as acting on it would constitute a life change with fairly
radical consequences. There would be something deeply puzzling about the
following exchange:
Bonnie: ‘The best thing for me is to move to Egypt’
Adam: ‘Why?’
Bonnie: ‘I don’t know. No reason.’
The phrase ‘the best thing’ seems to imply some weighing and evaluation on behalf
of the speaker, as if the statement made were the outcome of reason, but no reason
giving follows the statement. In this case, the lack of justification in Bonnie’s answer
could make Adam not only doubt whether Bonnie has authority over the belief she
reports, but also whether she really believes what she says, i.e. that the best thing for
her would be to move to Egypt. Such exchanges are not uncommon in
psychopathology, where some people affected by delusions can offer no reason for
the beliefs they report, even though the content of those beliefs is such that we would
expect it to play a significant role in their cognitive, emotional and relational lives.
From the point of view of the interpreter or interlocutor, when authorship of such
beliefs fails, two reactions can ensue. One might ascribe the belief to the person who
reports it and deny that the person has authority with respect to that belief.
Alternatively, one might be inclined to think that no genuine belief has been reported.4
Failure of authorship can be seen as evidence for lack of self knowledge or, more
radically, as an obstacle to the intentional characterisation of the observed behaviour,
depending on the nature of the attitude and the context in which it is reported.
Owning, endorsing and producing thoughts
In order to apply the notions of ownership and authorship to pathologies of belief, it
is useful to distinguish and compare five capacities that are important to the analysis
of behaviour in terms of intentionality, rationality and self knowledge:
(1) to locate a thought in one’s personal boundaries (spatiality condition);
(2) to access the content of a thought directly and first-personally (introspection
(3) to acknowledge a thought as one’s own (self ascription condition);
(4) to endorse the content of a thought on the basis of one’s best reasons
(authorship as endorsement);
(5) to be causally responsible for the formation of a thought (agency with respect to
The notions of ownership available in the literature are defined in terms of the
conjunction of (1) and (2), or in terms of the conjunction of (2) and (3): the owner of
It is worth noticing that it is to some extent controversial whether delusions should ever be characterised
in intentional terms. The debate between doxastic (e.g. Stone and Young 1997; Bayne and Pacherie 2005)
and non-doxastic accounts of delusions (e.g. Berrios 1991; Stephens and Graham 2006) is relevant to the
argument we present in this paper, and those on the side of doxastic accounts are likely to be more
sympathetic to our approach.
L. Bortolotti, M. Broome
a thought is taken to be either the subject who can locate the thought within her
personal boundaries and has direct access to the thought, or the subject who can
introspect the thought and acknowledge it as her own, thereby ascribing it to herself.
Ownership of a thought is never sufficient for its endorsement, which is based on the
capacity for reason giving in deliberation or justification, or, depending of the type
of thought, on behavioural manifestability. For the purposes of applying the notion
of authorship to cases of thought insertion, from now on we shall focus on those
thoughts whose content can be endorsed on the basis of reasons (e.g. opinions), and
leave aside the case of thoughts towards which commitment is primarily manifested
in behaviour (e.g. basic perceptual beliefs). In the former case, it is clear that
ownership is not sufficient for authorship. Recall our previous example: one can
believe that the effects of global warming are irreversible, and ascribe the belief to
oneself, without being able to provide any justification for it.
We shall discuss the merits of different notions of ownership in the next section.
Here we would like to address the issue of what authorship requires. In some
psychological literature authorship is often identified with intentional causation:
authoring an action consists in being causally responsible for it via the formation of a
prior intention (Wegner and Sparrow 2004). The notion of authorship we are
proposing is primarily concerned with the endorsement of the content of a mental
state, where the endorsement is measured in terms of the capacity for reason giving.
In order to be the author of a belief in this sense, to take responsibility for it and be
committed to its content, it is not necessary to assume that the reasons that justify
endorsing the belief map onto the psychological causes of its formation. Let’s think
about the difference between the following formulations:
a) In order to be the author of the belief that he should file for divorce, Patrick needs
to have formed that belief on the basis of the best evidence available to him.
b) In order to be the author of the belief that he should file for divorce, Patrick needs
to be able to endorse that belief on the basis of the best evidence available to him.
Formulations (a) and (b) differ in that (a) is concerned with the process of
formation of the belief and (b) with the process of justification of the belief. In order
to make sense of the notion of authorship that we have described in the previous
section and largely borrowed from Moran, (a) is far too demanding as a condition for
authorship. Following Moran, the conditions for authorship can be met by the
process of justification only, as it is perfectly conceivable and often the case that:
one acquires good reasons for endorsing the content of a belief that was initially
formed on the basis of very weak evidence;
a belief is justified in a way that is distinct from the way in which it was
originally formed—as the results of the introspection effect studies show;5
Evidence from the psychological studies on the effects of introspection confirms that the account of why
one endorses the content of a certain attitude often changes across time. Further, sometimes reflecting on
the reasons for an attitude leads one to revise the content of the initially reported attitude. Research
participants asked to say what they thought about Reagan when he was president of the United States were
later on asked to justify their opinion and, as a result of reflecting on their attitude, ended up expressing
opinions that were different from the ones they reported at the start (Wilson and Hodges 1994).
A role for ownership and authorship
a belief appears in the belief box as the result of dispositions that are not
transparent to the subject via introspection, and then is defended on the basis of
reasons after the subject has been made aware of the existence of the belief and
challenged to offer a justification for it.
If we took authorship of thoughts to require (a), the attitudes to count as authored
in a psychologically realistic account would be so few that the phenomenon might
be deprived of some of its interest: it would legitimately apply only to the outputs of
explicit deliberation. However, one objection often raised against our account of
authorship is that it is too revisionist: why should we call this phenomenon
‘authorship’ in the first place, if the subject authoring an attitude is not herself the
source of that attitude? To this we reply that the process of endorsement via reason
giving is not necessarily a process of thought production, but it is not a causally inert
process either. It is a process that, in Moran’s words, culminates with the subject
taking responsibility over the reported attitude and making a commitment to it that is
likely to be reflected in further reported attitudes and other forms of behaviour. This
sense of responsibility and commitment is often described by suggesting that it is up
to the subject what to believe. Authorship of beliefs is not hostage to the way in
which beliefs are formed but to whether their content is endorsed on the basis of
reasons. It is not about creation ex nihilo; it is about what relation one bears to the
content of a belief, in deliberation or justification.
In the literature on authorship processing, as we mentioned, authorship is discussed
in the context of movements rather than thoughts and it is taken to require intentional
causation. Subjects are regarded as authors when they act on their intentions. Wegner
and Sparrow (2004) suggest that there are cases in which the self is the author of an
action, but does not perceive the action as self-generated (e.g. hypnosis or alien hand
syndrome) and there are other cases in which the subject is not causally responsible
for an action, but the action is perceived as self generated (e.g. when an instance of
behaviour has good consequences for the subject, the behaviour is seen as willed and
self generated even if it was not). In the notion of authorship we have developed
following Moran (2001), there is less scope for a mismatch between actual
authorship and the sense of authorship. If the content of a belief is endorsed by the
subject of that belief on the basis of reasons, then she is the author of that belief, no
matter how the belief got there in the first place.
Is it possible to develop a notion of authorship as intentional causation for beliefs,
a notion that makes sense of the formulation in (a)? In order to apply the analysis
that Wegner (2002) provides for the production of movements to the production of
thoughts and we would need to assume that the latter works in an analogous way to
the former. The sense of authorship Wegner talks about rests on there being an
intention prior to a perceived movement that the subject regards as the cause of the
movement. But the analogy does not seem to work, and we shall come back to this
point later. The notion of authorship in the authorship processing literature seems to
be at home with movements, which can be perceived as anticipated by intentions or
as involuntary, but not to beliefs, which can be formed independently of the presence
of explicit intentions and acts of deliberation. The notion of authorship we find in
Moran seems to be better suited to account for intentional states of a certain type, as
it requires the presence of a content that can be endorsed on the basis of reasons, but
L. Bortolotti, M. Broome
not to movements which cannot be ‘endorsed’ independently of the intentions that
precede them and sometimes cause them.
Thought insertion and two notions of ownership
There are a number of disorders of the self that might affect the way in which one
feels one’s thoughts are formed, held, reported, accessed and affected by other
individuals or external forces. In delusions of passivity, we need to distinguish
between the delusional belief that some third party is controlling one’s thoughts or
inserting thoughts into one’s head (the delusional explanation); and the thought that
is regarded as controlled by others or inserted (the inserted or controlled-by-others
thought). The former belief can be authored, as the subject is not alienated from it
and can offer some (often implausible) explanation of how alien control and thought
insertion occurred. For example, a subject might explain that the ‘inserted’ thought
has been put in her head via a special device capable of transmitting thoughts. She
might go into greater detail as to how the machine can transmit thoughts and
elaborate on the magical power or the technology responsible for such a device. The
transmission or the ‘inserting’ process is seen as a physical process. It is worth
noticing that in some standardized interviews (such as PSE and SCAN6) one needs
to have the experience of a physical sensation to be regarded as suffering from
thought insertion. However, this is not universal to all assessment tools and not
integral to most common definitions.
It is with respect to the latter thought—the ‘inserted’ or ‘controlled’ one—that
questions of ownership and authorship emerge. The thought is known firstpersonally by the subject and therefore the subject is aware of the content of that
thought independently of behavioural evidence. But the subject also feels some
passivity with respect to the thought and regards it as alien or out of her own control
(Sims 2003, page 164). Not all thinking disorders involve the subject’s total
alienation from a thought that is known first-personally. In some cases, the subject
feels that her own thought is shared with others, broadcast without her permission or
withdrawn by others, but she maintains a limited sense of attachment to the thought
in so far as she recognises the thought as originally her own, as produced by her, or
as something she is committed to. In these cases, distress derives from a perceived
violation of privacy or breach of personal boundaries.
In thought insertion total alienation ensues, and this is the case we are going to
concentrate on, because it has the most puzzling theoretical consequences for the
philosophy of thought, that is, the divorce between first-personal awareness of the
content of a thought, and the possibility of self ascribing that thought. The subject
“experiences thoughts that do not have the feeling of familiarity, of being his own,
but he feels that they have been put in his mind without his volition, from outside
himself” (Sims 2003, page 168). Radical alienation can be experienced to the same
degree with respect to physical movements as well as to thoughts, when the
PSE = present state examination, SCAN = schedule for the clinical assessment of neuropsychiatry.
A role for ownership and authorship
movement of a limb, for instance, occurs independently of the subject’s will to move
and is perceived as foreign.
Here are some examples of disorders of passivity:
1. A university student in her second year believes that her university lecturer has
implanted an electronic device in her head that can control her thoughts. (Lewis
and Guthrie 2002, page 70)
2. “One evening one thought was given to me electrically that I should murder
Lissi.” (Jaspers 1963, page 580)
3. “When I reach for the comb, it is my hand and arm which move. But I don’t
control them. I sit watching them move and they are quite independent, what
they do is nothing to do with me. I am just a puppet manipulated by cosmic
strings.” (Graham and Stephens 1994, page 99)
4. A 57-year-old woman suffered a stroke and thereafter perceived her left hand as
having a will of its own. On one occasion, the hand grabbed her by the throat
and choked her, requiring great effort to pull it off. She described the hand as
possessing “an evil spirit” and stated that it did not belong to her: “Those are
two very different people, the arm and I” (Scepkowski and Cronin-Golomb
2003, page 261).
Of the examples above, only (2) is a case of thought insertion, and now we turn to
the discussion of how best we can explain the phenomenon. Recall the five capacities
we referred to in the previous section: spatiality; introspection; self ascription;
authorship as endorsement via reason giving; agency with respect to thoughts. As we
did argue before, introspection and authorship can come apart in the reporting of both
ordinary and delusional beliefs. But introspection and self ascription seem to come
apart only in quite exceptional cases; in thought insertion, the subject is aware of the
content of a thought in a first-personal way but does not acknowledge that the thought
is her own. Because of the detachment of self ascription from introspection, thought
insertion challenges commonsense and it is a puzzle for our philosophical conception
of what it is to have a thought. Thus, it deserves careful analysis.
According to standard analyses of thought insertion (e.g. Gerrans 2001; Gallagher
2004, 2007), the subject is aware of a thought in a first-personal way, and recognises
that the thought is within her personal boundaries, but lacks something else, which is
described as a sense of agency with respect to the thought. This is the sense that the
thought was voluntarily produced or brought into existence by the subject. In other
words, it is the sense that the subject had a causally efficacious role in the generation
of the thought. What is the evidence that the sense of agency is what is missing from
the experience leading to reports of thought insertion?
The phenomenology of the delusion seems to be compatible with the subject
lacking a sense of agency; the subject affected by the delusion typically says that she
has the thought because someone else gave it to her, or because some piece of
machinery forced it into her head. Additional support for this view would come from
the alleged parallelism between loss of agency with respect to movements and loss
of agency with respect to thoughts. When people suffer from alien hand syndrome,
they claim that their hand moves independently of their will (sometimes, against
their will). Subjects do not recognise themselves as those who initiated the
movement, as if they were controlled by others or as if the hand had a will of its
L. Bortolotti, M. Broome
own. This experience has often been compared with some reports of thought
insertion where the mind is described as a passive instrument in the grip of someone
else’s will, as a medium for thinking thoughts that are generated by other people or
by external forces. In the loss-of-agency account, it is the causal element which is
missing from the subject’s awareness of her relation with the thought. The subject is
aware of the content of the thought but she is not aware that she is responsible for
producing the thought.
When discussing thought insertion, Shaun Gallagher (2004) employs a notion of
ownership that is characterised by the spatiality condition and the introspection
condition. Thus, for Gallagher, it is sufficient for one to own a thought that the thought
is experienced first-personally in one’s head. This experience is independent of any
sense of acknowledgement, and of any sense of responsibility for the generation or the
maintenance of the thought. If we apply the notions of ownership characterised by
introspection and inclusion in the subject’s personal boundaries to the case of thought
insertion, we find that the subject owns the ‘inserted’ thought, as she can locate it
within her personal boundaries and has direct, first-personal access to its content.
This notion of ownership has several drawbacks, though. To start with, it does not
seem to vindicate the everyday notion of ownership as having an entitlement to or a
legal right of possession over the object that is owned (Oxford English Dictionary
2007). John Campbell (2002) discusses a more demanding notion of ownership,
according to which a subject needs to acknowledge the thought as her own and
ascribe it to herself in order to be its owner. To some extent, the notion of ownership
as including the self ascription condition does justice to the notion of ownership as
entitlement, because the subject can ascribe the thought to herself on the basis of
introspection, psychological information about herself or consideration of the
reasons in favour of the content of that thought. All these sources of entitlement
are possible, and in some cases more than one source is available at once. However,
it is not necessary for self ascription that the subject considers the reasons in favour
of the content of the acknowledged thought. Thus, when granting the capacity for
self ascription, no additional claims need to be made about the thought being
endorsed by the subject.
If we apply the more demanding notion of ownership to the case of thought
insertion, then we find that the subject does not own the ‘inserted’ thought. The
thought is accessed directly and reported first-personally, but it is not reported as the
subject’s own thought. It is ‘mineness’ as entitlement to the thought which is the
crucial and distinguishing feature of this account of ownership; and it is this
‘mineness’ which is conspicuously missing from the subject’s phenomenology.
Thought insertion as a failure of self ascription
An appropriate notion of ownership in the context of thought insertion needs to be
able to (a) vindicate some of our intuitions about ownership in general; (b) be
sensitive to what is peculiar about ownership of thoughts; (c) avoid explaining away
the puzzling nature of thought insertion. We should be wary of a notion of
ownership that de-pathologises thought insertion and leads to describing the
condition as one way in which subjects relate to their thoughts.
A role for ownership and authorship
If we think about the notion of ownership in general, spatial considerations are
usually not sufficient to claim ownership. If a neighbour’s child throws a ball into
your garden, the ball does not become yours in virtue of the fact that it fell within the
boundaries of your property. In order to keep the ball and silence the protestations of
the weeping child you would have to show that you are entitled to keeping that ball,
e.g. show a receipt from a toy shop indicating that you did acquire that ball some
time in the past. Another example which might be more relevant: what happens in
successful transplants is that someone else’s organ is inserted in one’s ‘personal
boundaries’. The fact that a heart is beating inside you, does not necessarily make
the heart yours. More generally, it is not sufficient for an object to be within one’s
personal boundaries, or within the boundaries of one’s property, to be owned by that
Additional reservations could be expressed about the significance of the spatiality
condition for the notion of ownership when such a notion is applied to thoughts. All
conditions for ownership of thought are to some extent reliant on a metaphorical
way of describing thoughts as things that can be possessed. However, the
introspection condition seems to take into account the specific attributes of what is
owned, that is, thoughts are the type of objects that can be introspected, i.e. mental
states, because they have a content that can be accessed first-personally, and that can
be ascribed to oneself on the basis of introspection. Instead, the spatiality condition
seems to rely for its plausibility on a very controversial conception of the mind as a
container where objects are placed and can be later retrieved. If one finds the thought
in the box, then the thought is one’s own. Independent of what we think about the
ontological status of thoughts, this metaphor is excessively crude.
Proponents of the significance of the spatiality condition might reply that subjects
with thought insertion talk about their thoughts as foreign objects unduly pushed into
a personal and private space: subjects report thoughts to be physically inserted in
their minds. Conceptualising thoughts as material objects enclosed in a physical
space would then be acceptable, as it is compatible with the reports of subjects with
the condition. But this move is problematic for two independent reasons. First,
untutored descriptions of mental life might be relevant for psychological theories of
belief formation and ascription, but are rarely a good guide to the ontology and
epistemology of the mind. Second, if one wanted to take all aspects of the
phenomenology of thought insertion at face value, one would also have to take into
account that subjects with thought insertion explicitly disown and take distance from
the thoughts they report, claiming that they are the thoughts of others.
These observations about the alleged match between the spatiality-focused account
of ownership and the phenomenology of thought insertion raise further concerns. An
appeal to the notion of ownership in the case of thought insertion needs to make sense
of ownership of thoughts in general and give us the tools to describe what is puzzling
about the thought insertion case. If the proposed analysis of ownership fits the case of
thought insertion extremely well, but the price to pay is that it cannot be successfully
applied to other cases of ownership of thoughts, then it is ad hoc. An indication that
the notion of ownership as satisfaction of the spatiality and introspection conditions
is ad hoc is given by the fact that it makes thought insertion lose all of its puzzling
features. What seems puzzling about thought insertion is that one can introspect a
thought without acknowledging that the thought is one’s own. But this is no longer a
L. Bortolotti, M. Broome
difficult condition to describe, given that the less demanding notion of ownership
vindicates it entirely. The capacity for self ascription is missing, but it is not an
integral part of what ownership requires.
In thoughts that can be first-personally accessed, as opposed to other objects,
ownership and acknowledgement of ownership seem to go together. One usually
knows that a thought is one’s own when it is, because ordinarily one would not be in
a position to access the content of that thought unless one was the subject of that
thought. Introspecting a thought is usually sufficient for ascribing that thought to
oneself.7 This is what makes thought insertion interesting to philosophers: if you
suffer from thought insertion, you recognise that the thought is in your mind
(spatiality condition), and you can access its content first-personally (introspection
condition), but you don’t think the thought is yours (failure of the self ascription
condition). You might have a story to explain how the ‘inserted’ thought ended up in
your mind (delusional explanation) in which it is clear that you had no role in
bringing that thought about, and, typically, that you do not endorse it (failure of
authorship). Independent of how that thought got into your mind, and what role it
now has in your system of beliefs, you don’t acknowledge the thought as yours and
you don’t ascribe it to yourself.
The notion of ownership primarily characterised by inclusion in one’s personal
boundaries and introspective access is not suitable to account for the experience of
the person affected by the delusion, because it cannot capture the conflict that is
experienced. For the subject affected by thought insertion, the ‘inserted’ thought is
an unwanted intruder and the very distress lies in the fact that the thought is in their
head but also, in a conventional sense, they don’t acknowledge it as theirs. The
exclusion of the self ascription condition from the less demanding notion of
ownership makes the experience of thought insertion apparently more tractable, and
less pathological, but at the cost of accepting statements of the form “x is mine, but I
don’t acknowledge it as mine”, or “x is P’s but P does not acknowledge x as hers”
that are acceptable when applied to many objects, and yet have the flavour of
inconsistency when applied to thoughts.
According to the more demanding notion of ownership, the subject with thought
insertion fails to satisfy the conditions for ownership, because she fails to satisfy the
self ascription condition. This means that thought insertion is characterised by a
failure of ownership. The thought does not belong to the subject; she doesn’t
acknowledge it as hers. This account gives us the resources to explain what does
work in thought insertion (the introspection condition is satisfied), and allows us to
make sense of the conflict that is experienced by subjects with thought insertion (due
to the fact that the introspection condition is satisfied, but the self ascription
condition is not). No special role is played by the spatiality condition, whose reliance
on a dubious model of the mind we have already discussed. Thoughts might be ‘seen
from the inside’ but they are not acknowledged as belonging to the subject. Inserted
thoughts are unwanted and unwelcome, and this is one of the key symptoms often
linked to violence in psychotic illness.
Sometimes philosophers talk about “immunity from error through misidentification”. The idea is that I
can be mistaken about what my thought is about, but I cannot be mistaken about who the subject of my
thought is.
A role for ownership and authorship
Thought insertion as a failure of endorsement
As we have seen in the previous section, the standard analysis of thought insertion in
the literature attempts to make sense of its phenomenology in a way that is
compatible with ascribing to the subject ownership of the thought as inclusion of the
thought in one’s personal boundaries and first-personal awareness of the content of
the thought. The next move is to rely heavily on the analogy between thinking
disorders and disorders of activity involving alienation, and to suggest that there is a
common answer to the question about what is amiss in, say, thought insertion and
alien hand syndrome. The subject fails to experience a sense of agency with respect
to the ‘inserted’ thought or to the alien hand. The thought and the hand are owned, in
the sense that the subject is aware that they are located within her personal
boundaries. Yet the subject feels passive with respect to them, as she does not feel
that she initiated or controlled the formation of the thought or the movement of the
hand. To support this interpretation, and the analogy between ‘inserted’ thoughts and
alien movements, Gerrans (2001) describes the experience of a subject as feeling like
a marionette controlled by others. Campbell (2002) notices that loss of agency in
thought insertion implies that there is no sense that the thought has been produced by
the subject, it has just forcefully and intrusively appeared.
Although it is an attractive option to account for a variety of delusions of
passivity in a way that is sufficiently homogeneous, there are good reasons to keep
disorders of thinking and disorders of activity apart in this context and to focus on
the nature of the commitment to the thought that is regarded as ‘inserted’. We want
to resist an account of thought insertion which rests primarily on a loss of the sense
of agency, and propose that thought insertion should be analysed as a condition in
which typically both the capacity of self ascription and authorship as endorsement
fail with respect to the ‘inserted’ thought.
What are the advantages of talking about loss of ownership and authorship rather
than loss of agency? Isn’t the whole dispute merely terminological? We believe it is
not. Our analysis, we shall argue, can allow us to distinguish between: (a) delusions
of passivity and ordinary beliefs when are formed in absence of explicit deliberation;
(b) the role of intentional causation and production in disorders of activity and in
disorders of thinking; (c) the phenomenology of thought insertion and that of
delusions of control with respect to thoughts. Moreover, our account can make sense
of the claim that thought insertion is a failure of self knowledge independently of a
reference to the breach of personal boundaries.
Let us assess the loss-of-agency account. First, the failure to experience a sense of
agency does not discriminate between the phenomenon of the inserted thought and
that of many ordinary beliefs. As Mullins and Spence (2003) argue, to offer an
explanation of thought insertion which relies on the distinction between subjectivity
and agency (Stephens and Graham 2000) or between sense of ownership and sense
of agency (Campbell 2002) does not satisfactorily account for the peculiarity of the
delusional experience. The unsolicited thoughts that come spontaneously to mind,
without being preceded by explicit deliberative intention, do not typically give rise
to delusional beliefs about others inserting or implanting thoughts. The sense of
agency with respect to these beliefs is lacking as it is in the thought insertion case,
but no such a delusional explanation is reported. This suggests that the sense of
L. Bortolotti, M. Broome
passivity in belief formation cannot be the core element of the condition of thought
insertion. If we analyse the condition in terms of failure of the capacity for self
ascription and failure of authorship as the potential for justification and endorsement,
the problem Mullins and Spence identify vanishes. Those ordinary thoughts that are
not the outcome of explicit deliberation can still be acknowledged and even
endorsed post-hoc. That is probably why they do not give rise to delusions of
passivity. In our analysis of thought insertion in terms of a failure of acknowledgement and endorsement there is no need to make the controversial assumption that
subjects ordinarily have a sense of agency with respect to their thoughts, where
sense of agency amounts to a feeling that the thoughts have been produced by the
subjects. In order to ascribe a thought to oneself and feel entitled to it, one does not
need to have formed it as a result of explicit deliberation. As we saw, very few
thoughts are produced in this way and yet unsolicited thoughts do not ordinarily
appear as alien to their subject. When we discussed the conditions for authorship, we
found that deliberation is not a necessary condition for authorship of beliefs, because
the commitment to the content of a thought can take the form of a reason-guided
post-hoc justification.
Second, there are elements of discontinuity between disorders of thinking and of
activity. The idea that subjects with thought insertion lack a sense of agency as
thought production is the result of the forced analogy between thoughts and
movements on which the loss-of-agency account rests. This analogy is very
problematic, even when we compare basic descriptions of the phenomena. If you
suffer from alien hand syndrome, the hand moves in a way that is not controlled by
you, and you feel the movement is not yours, because you have not formed a prior
intention to move your hand in that way. But in thought insertion you do not fail to
acknowledge that the brain is yours because it has engaged in an act of thinking that
was not willed by you. Rather, you explain that others are using your brain and take
distance from the product of that thinking activity, ascribing it to someone else.
What matters to the ascription of the thought? That the thought is acknowledged as
one’s own, as either introspected, attributed on the basis of psychological evidence
about oneself, or supported with reasons. Trying to establish whether there was a
prior intention to produce the thought is irrelevant and slightly misleading: we do not
typically form intentions to produce thoughts, although we might intend to engage in
thinking activities that have as their objectives the solution of a problem or a
deliberation. If we take introspection, self ascription and endorsement to be the
central notions in the assessment of self knowledge for reported attitudes, then the
analogy between ‘inserted’ thoughts and alien movements breaks down entirely.
Movements themselves do not seem to be the appropriate object of introspection or
justificatory exercises, although intentional actions can be authored to some extent,
as they involve intentional attitudes that can be introspected, acknowledged and
Third, the analysis of thought insertion that concentrates on the failure to
experience a sense of agency does not allow for discriminations that are fine-grained
enough to distinguish thought insertion from other delusions of passivity, such as
thought-control. Consider the difference between cases (1) and (2) in “Thought
insertion and two notions of ownership”: in the former a university student believes
that a lecturer is controlling her thoughts; in the latter a thought is “given
A role for ownership and authorship
electrically” to the subject that they should kill someone. Ownership as the
satisfaction of the spatiality and introspection conditions cannot discriminate
between these two cases. But tracking the self ascription condition helps. In the
case of the university lecturer, acknowledgement of the thoughts is preserved, but
thoughts are perceived as controlled and possibly produced by someone else. In the
case of the murderous thought, there is no apparent endorsement or sense of agency.
More importantly, there is no attempt to self ascribe the thought. It is this failure of
self ascription that an observer perceives as a radical breakdown of self knowledge
and that makes thought insertion distinct from thought control.
Similarly, (3) and (4) differ in that the subject in (3) recognises the limb as her
own but cannot control its movements, whereas the subject in (4) denies that the
limb is hers and talks about the limb as a separate entity with intentions. The notion
of acknowledgement is doing the work here, as the preservation of the spatiality
condition and the violation of the agency condition cannot discriminate between the
two cases. Movements are outside the agent’s control in both (3) and (4). Both the
anarchic hand and the alien hand are cases in which the subject lacks agency—as she
perceives the limb to move independently of her will—but only in the latter case the
limb is described as belonging to someone else, or even as being someone else
(Marchetti and Della Sala 1998). Whereas authorship seems to be relevant only to
thoughts, acknowledgement seems to play a role in the analysis of disorders of
activity as well as in that of disorders of thinking.
The experiences of having a thought broadcast externally or controlled by
someone else are compatible with the preservation of the spatiality condition and in
some cases even with the violation of the agency condition, but they differ from the
experience of thought insertion. In these other cases, the thought can be
acknowledged as one’s own, ascribed to oneself and endorsed. What makes thought
insertion a dramatically different experience is that the violation of the self ascription
condition and typically a failure of authorship.
One possible objection to this account is that some reports of thought
insertion seem to suggest that the subject endorses the ‘inserted’ thought. A
more careful consideration of these individual cases is needed before any
satisfactory response can be made. But here are some considerations. First,
there are different types of thoughts. As we explained in “Authorship and
reason giving”, for some thoughts the notion of authorship as endorsement via
reason giving will not apply. If the ‘inserted’ thoughts are merely perceptual
beliefs, then the question whether the subject endorses them on the basis of reasons
will lose centrality and significance in the analysis of her condition, and the (lack
of) endorsement will probably be manifested only behaviourally. If the ‘inserted’
thoughts are emotionally charged, and concern hating or intending to kill other
people, then notion of endorsement via reason giving will play an important role,
as these thoughts are such that, if self ascribed and integrated in a system of
beliefs, they would be central to the subject’s self image.
Second, it is plausible to think that thoughts are not identified uniquely on the
basis of their propositional content, but also on the basis of the attitude that the
subject has towards that content. It is known that people recovering from thought
insertion go through an intermediate phase of confusion but may end up
acknowledging as their own the thoughts they once regarded as alien. Are those
L. Bortolotti, M. Broome
the same thoughts, first rejected and then acknowledged, or are we confronted with
different thoughts that play different role in the subject’s belief system and self
image, but that happen to have the same content? If a subject with thought insertion
is able to give reasons for a thought reported as ‘inserted’, one possible description
of the situation is that there are really two thoughts. One is the ‘inserted’ one,
disowned and rejected. The other is the thought which is acknowledged and
endorsed. And they both have the same content.
We suggested at the start that our proposed analysis can shed some light on the
claim that thought insertion is a failure of self knowledge. The view identifies two
different senses in which a subject might fail to know herself when she is affected by
thought insertion, and creates a connection between failures of self knowledge and
failures of rationality. The subject with thought insertion fails to ascribe the thought
to herself and (typically) she cannot give reasons for endorsing the content of that
thought. Both self knowledge and rationality are negatively affected by a breakdown
in the capacity to give reasons for the accessible content of reported thoughts.
The disruption of self knowledge manifests itself not just as a false conception of
one’s personal boundaries, but as a failure to ascribe to oneself and give reasons for a
first-personally accessed and reported thought. Subjects with thought insertion do
not have any difficulty in satisfying the introspection condition, but they do not feel
entitled to the thought they can introspect and struggle in making it an integral part
of their own self narrative and self image. They come to believe that their personal
boundaries have been breached and are horrified by the exception to the rule that, if
something is in their head, then it is their thought. When something that is in their
head turns out to be something that they do not recognise as one of their thoughts,
they are very distressed and, as a consequence, might start doubting the ownership of
all of the thoughts they can access first-personally.
Both intentional causation in terms of thought production and endorsement via
reason-giving have repercussions on attribution of autonomy and responsibility and
are relevant to further analyses of intentionality and rationality in subjects with
thought insertion. But we believe that conceiving of thought insertion as a failure of
ownership and authorship has significant benefits: as we showed, it is psychologically realistic, as it does not need to assume that ordinary thoughts are experienced
as willed and produced; and it does not attempt to explain away the puzzling features
of thought insertion, thereby vindicating the evident distress that the condition
causes in those who suffer from it.
In this paper we argued that in order to analyse the phenomenon of thought insertion
in a way that does justice to the experience and the reports of subjects affected by the
condition, it is useful to appeal to two notions: the notion of ownership of a thought
as including the capacity for acknowledging a thought as one’s own; and the notion
of authorship of a thought as endorsement of the content of that thought via reason
giving. As ownership and authorship of thoughts are conditions for self knowledge,
and typical subjects with thought insertion fail to manifest ownership and authorship
of the ‘inserted’ thoughts, thought insertion turns out to be a failure of self
A role for ownership and authorship
knowledge. In particular, it is a failure in acknowledging a thought as one’s own and
precludes the possibility for ascribing that thought to oneself. Subjects with thought
insertion also are typically unable to give reasons for endorsing those thoughts which
would typically be endorsed via reason giving if they were ascribed to oneself. This
signals the breakdown of a capacity which is relevant both to judgements of firstperson authority and rationality: the capacity for deliberation and justification.
Acknowledgements The authors are grateful for comments on previous versions of this paper to:
the audience of the Philosophy of Psychiatry Work-in-Progress Workshop organised by Rachel Cooper
at the University of Lancaster in January 2008; the audience of the Delusions and Self Knowledge
Workshop organised by Finn Spicer at the University of Bristol in February 2008; and the audience of
the Cognitive Sciences seminar in Barcelona. In particular, the paper benefited from discussion with
Hanna Pickard and Jordi Fernández who have been working independently on self knowledge and
accounts of alien and inserted thoughts. The authors are also grateful to two anonymous referees for
very constructive and helpful comments.
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