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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 8.2/3 (2001) 231-237

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Review Article

Authorship and Ownership of Thoughts

Philip Gerrans

Two of the most intriguing Schneiderian symptoms of schizophrenia are auditory hallucinations and thought insertion. In the former, the subject "hears" voices, typically accusing or critical, but sometimes hortatory or approving, which accompany her actions or thoughts, often in a kind of running commentary. In thought insertion, the subject has thoughts that she thinks are the thoughts of other people, somehow occurring in her own mind. It is not that the subject thinks that other people are making her think certain thoughts as if by hypnosis or psychokinesis, but that other people think the thoughts using the subject's mind as a psychological medium. The considerable achievement of Stephens and Graham's book, When Self-Consciousness Breaks. Alien Voices and Inserted Thoughts (Stephens and Graham 2000), is to analyze these phenomena in a way that provides a genuinely illuminating way of thinking about, not only schizophrenia, but the normal first-person experience of the self as a unified locus of thought and agency.

The core of their analysis is a distinction they make between two ways in which a thought or experience can be said to be "mine." They distinguish a sense of subjectivity from a sense of agency, or, as I shall put it, a sense of ownership from a sense of authorship. In cases of auditory hallucination and thought insertion, the agent has a psychological experience, which she owns, in the sense that it occurs within her mind, not the mind of someone else, but of which she is not the author. That is to say that the audition or cognition is experienced as somehow originating in the mind of someone else who causes the subject to experience it as occurring within her mind. Schneider's (1959) suggestive idea that these phenomena are indicative of a breakdown in "ego boundaries," or the ability to determine where the subject's mind begins and ends, requires some reformulation. The schizophrenic is apparently quite clear that these episodes occur in her own mind, but she is equally convinced that someone else is the author of them.

In their analysis, Stephens and Graham join forces with theorists of schizophrenia like Bovet, Parnas, and Sass (Bovet and Parnas 1993; Parnas and Sass, this issue) who concentrate primarily on the phenomenology of schizophrenia, that is, the experience of the schizophrenic subject, rather than neurobiological or cognitive explanations of that experience. In fact, Stephens and Graham remain neutral, even pluralist, about these lower levels of explanation, accepting the possibility that there may be a variety of causes of the experience of dissociation between ownership and authorship. In other words, the phenomenon may be multiply realizable at lower cognitive levels than that of the conscious experience [End Page 231] of persons. I shall suggest later that this neutrality might be a disadvantage of their account, since one advantage of some theories is that they provide quite a tight link between the phenomenology of dissociation and the neural/cognitive malfunctions that produce it.

Nonetheless, the concentration on phenomenology is salutary, since it must be a constraint on any cognitive or neurobiological explanation that it can explain the character of the subject's experience. For example, a cognitive or neurological theory might tell us that multiple selves existing in the same brain is an impossibility. Even if we accepted such an explanation, however, we still need to explain how it is that those with multiple personality disorder (MPD) feel so intensely and intractably "multiple." The same is true of the positive symptoms of schizophrenia. Even if mechanisms of ownership and authorship are not distinct psychological entities, or if they are but do not dissociate in schizophrenia, the theorist owes us an explanation of why it is that the experience of dissociation is so intense and intractable.

One obvious possibility is that the experience of ownership and authorship of thoughts are underpinned by distinct psychological mechanisms and that schizophrenic experience reflects a dissociation. What could such mechanisms be? Much recent work on schizophrenia is inspired...


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