Why having thoughts that aren't yours doesn't make you delusional

June 28, 2016 by Clara Humpston, The Conversation
Thinking strange thoughts does not necessarily mean you’re deluded. Credit: Shutterstock/Photographee.eu

Any thought that occurs within our minds is undoubtedly our own thought – and when we say, "I think", there will be absolutely no mistake about the "I" to which we refer. In fact, only very few of us would even question whether we are thinking our own thoughts, and those who do are most likely pursuing a philosophical enquiry rather than physically questioning the nature of one's thinking. Isn't "I think, therefore I am" the most basic of all prerequisites for one's existence?

For a small minority, however, being able to think one's own is not always a given condition or even applicable to this "I." Some report having thoughts being put into their heads by another person, or simply "receiving" external thoughts originating from an outside source – an experience which, unsurprisingly perhaps, can be extremely frightening.

How is something like this even remotely possible? The answer is, it isn't. At least not with our current understanding of the laws of physics. As a result, this experience of severe interference is termed "thought insertion", and is defined as one of the key delusions – a "first-rank symptom" – indicative of a schizophrenic illness. Compared with some delusions that might just carry a hint of reality (such as believing neighbours are spreading rumours about you), thought insertion seems to be the most bizarre of them all.

Delusions as beliefs

Current psychiatric diagnostic systems view delusions as beliefs. For a certain idea to be delusional, someone must first believe in this idea, often with absolute conviction, even when faced with evidence to the contrary. In my view, however, thought insertions don't always fit in with this definition, and so don't qualify as delusions.

If one investigates the actual subjective experience of thought insertion – beyond what is written in clinical files and medical textbooks –- the richness and even reality of the experience begins to emerge. Orthodox definitions of delusion are being increasingly challenged by philosophically-minded researchers; psychotic or not, individuals experiencing external thoughts often find it extremely difficult to put into words "what it is like" to have such thoughts. Some of them report these thoughts as sensory, even auditory (but still claim they are thoughts and not voices); others can quite literally feel the "point of entry" to a certain locality inside their minds.

In fact, the boundary between thinking and perception is so blurred that one person used the term "thought-voices" to describe her experiences.

Thoughts can’t just be placed inside your head. Credit: Shutterstock/agsandrew

Then what is thought insertion, if it is not always a delusion? I argue that thought insertion is a duplex phenomenon which may or may not be a delusion.

The delusion may be created by having thoughts in which someone has lost their sense of agency (the feeling that a given thought is generated by one's self), and ownership, (the endorsement that this thought belongs to one's self). But agency and ownership are not all or nothing concepts, neither do they always come hand-in-hand – you can, for example, feel like you generated a thought but that it isn't yours, so though you have agency, there is no ownership.

Depending on how much of one's sense of agency and ownership is lost or damaged in relation to a given thought, it may feel unfamiliar or even alien. But it is only when an external attribution to another agent occurs, for example, "this thought is given to me by Chris", can we call it a delusion.

In other words, simply having a foreign thought is not a delusion in itself, even though it may very often lead to a delusional explanation.

The experience of thought insertion can be sensory, perceptual or physical. So, to me, it is more appropriate to say "delusions in thought insertion" rather than "delusions of thought insertion", and I am not just playing a game of lexicon. It is crucial to differentiate the processes that produce these acts of thinking and the thoughts that ensue, no matter how much such notions challenge our common sense.

Some of us may argue there is nothing about a delusion that is worth listening to, let alone explain, because the implausibility and apparent meaninglessness is beyond what a "rational" person could ever understand. But by acknowledging the complexity and mystery of thought insertion, clinicians might just be a little more understanding towards their patients' subjective experiences. By removing the assumption that all thought interference is delusional by nature, we close the gap between "us normal people" and "those mad people".

Even in cases where delusions are present, they still carry important meanings about the individual. Before we make assumptions and call someone delusional, perhaps we should question our own "reality" as well.

Explore further: Dreams, déjà vu and delusions caused by faulty 'reality testing'

Related Stories

Dreams, déjà vu and delusions caused by faulty 'reality testing'

February 19, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—New research from the University of Adelaide has delved into the reasons why some people are unable to break free of their delusions, despite overwhelming evidence explaining the delusion isn't real.

What are delusions – and how best can we treat them?

May 3, 2016
From believing that clouds are alien spaceships to thinking that MI6 agents are following you in unmarked cars, delusions are the hallmark of severe mental illness. Even psychologists and psychiatrists who work with delusional ...

People prone to delusions make rushed decisions, research shows

October 1, 2014
People who are prone to delusions gather insufficient information before making decisions, according to research published in the journal Psychological Medicine.

Using hypnosis to understand symptoms of disorders of thought

October 29, 2014
Researchers from the Forensic and Neurodevelopmental Science Department at King's College London's Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) have identified a key region of the brain that gives us the sense ...

Hallucinations and delusions more common than thought

May 27, 2015
Hallucinations and delusions in the general population are more common than previously thought.

New warning signs of mental health disorders

March 21, 2016
Healthy people who have occasional hallucinations or delusions are more likely to experience mood and anxiety disorders, University of Queensland researchers have found.

Recommended for you

How people cope with difficult life events fuels development of wisdom, study finds

February 21, 2018
How a person responds to a difficult life event such as a death or divorce helps shape the development of their wisdom over time, a new study from Oregon State University suggests.

When it comes to our brains, there's no such thing as normal

February 20, 2018
There's nothing wrong with being a little weird. Because we think of psychological disorders on a continuum, we may worry when our own ways of thinking and behaving don't match up with our idealized notion of health. But ...

Jymmin: How a combination of exercise and music helps us feel less pain

February 20, 2018
Pain is essential for survival. However, it could also slow the progress of rehabilitation, or in its chronic form could become a distinct disorder. How strongly we feel it, among other factors, depends on our individual ...

College roommates underestimate each other's distress, new psychology research shows

February 19, 2018
College roommates are sensitive to their roommates' distress but tend to underestimate the level of distress being experienced by others, finds a newly published study from New York University psychology researchers.

New approaches in neuroscience show it's not all in your head

February 16, 2018
Our own unique experiences shape how we view the world and respond to the events in our lives. But experience is highly subjective. What's distressing or joyful to one person may be very different to another.

Link between hallucinations and dopamine not such a mystery, finds study

February 16, 2018
Researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) found that people with schizophrenia who experience auditory hallucinations tend to hear what they expect, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.