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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 8.2/3 (2001) 173-176
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Agency Lost and Found:
Commentary on Spence
As Spence rightly insists, the symptoms of alien control involve not just a disturbance of aspects of self-awareness but also altered intersubjectivity. One first feature of these symptoms is the existence of a dissociation between what, following Gallagher (2000), we may call a sense of ownership and a sense of agency. Patients experiencing alien control feel that they own certain thoughts and actions, insofar as they experience them occurring within their minds or bodies and yet do not experience themselves as the agents or authors of these thoughts or actions. A second, more puzzling feature of alien control is that these patients do not simply fail to experience some of their thoughts, emotions, and actions as their own, they experience them as controlled or authored by other agents. Theoretical accounts of alien control should therefore explain not just how one may come to lack an experience of one's own agency, but also how this experience can be replaced by an experience of an alien agency.
Among the explanations that have been offered is Frith's influential theory, according to which the positive symptoms of schizophrenia, such as alien control, are the result of a defective internal monitoring of willed intentions. Spence points out several difficulties with this model. I concur with these criticisms and find Spence's alternative suggestion that alien control might involve an increased awareness of normally unconscious intentions quite fascinating. Yet, as it stands, this suggestion confronts some of the difficulties Spence identifies in Frith's theory. First, why should patients who become aware of normally unconscious intentions attribute them to an alien agency? Second, although Spence is not explicit on this, we may wonder whether this idea of an increased awareness of unconscious intentions is meant to explain thought insertions as well as alien control of action, and, if so, whether the assumption this generalization would have to rest on, namely, that thinking is a sort of intentional action, is really plausible?
Here I will concentrate on the first question. I will try to show that Spence's proposal can be interpreted in terms of an impairment of action-monitoring, although not at the level emphasized in Frith's model. I will present some remarks on the relation between this level of monitoring and the phenomenology of agency in normal subjects. I will also suggest that this monitoring system may play a crucial role in self/other attribution of agency.
In the model proposed by Frith, actions are defined as caused by intentions. Two kinds of intentions, hence of actions, are distinguished. Stimulus-intentions are triggered by a specific stimulus in the environment, whereas willed intentions are internally generated based on the [End Page 173] subject's own goals and plans. According to Frith, alien control could be explained by a failure to monitor willed actions. The agent is not aware that he is acting based on a willed intention and, therefore, attributes his action to an alien agency. As Spence points out, this proposal gives rise to a paradox insofar as Frith also insists on the conscious nature of willed intentions.
Perhaps a more useful way of carving up the field is to use a Searle-cum-Jeannerod distinction between prior intentions and intentions in action. In this approach, all actions involve intentions in action understood as hierarchically organized motor representations of the goal-directed movements to be executed. In some cases, these intentions inaction are themselves caused by conscious prior intentions; in other cases, they may be triggered by stimuli in the environment or by other action schemas already activated. The increased awareness of normally unconscious intentions, which Spence proposes could be responsible for alien control, may be linked, in turn, to defective monitoring at the level of intentions-in-action. In Jeannerod's framework, motor representations do not just send motor commands to various effectors; they provide an internal model that allows the system to anticipate the sensory consequences of the action. At this...