A Thought on Thought Insertion

Daniel Tippens

It is an established fact that those who suffer from schizophrenia report that they experience, “thought insertion.” The sensation they report is that somebody is putting thoughts in their head; that their thoughts are not their own, but rather someone else’s. What are we to make of such a claim?

John Campbell, in an episode on the popular podcast Philosophy Bites, discussed this issue. He noted that patients “have this sense that thoughts which are not their own are inserted in their mind. The feeling is a thought that is of someone else’s mind has been inserted into yours.” Some of these thoughts, he said, can be mundane, such as “I look out the window and see how cool and green the grass is. But it is actually someone else’s thought that comes into my mind.” Other thoughts are things like, “kill god.” 

Later in the interview he said that one of the interesting things about this phenomenon is that we normally take ourselves to be able to look inside our mind and uncontroversially know that it is us who is doing the thinking, and that our thoughts are our own. Who else’s would they be? But in the case of Schizophrenics, they are “making a mistake about who is doing the thinking.” Having experienced the phenomenon myself, I don’t think that Schizophrenics are making a mistake.

First it is important to draw a distinction between who is doing the thinking as opposed to who’s thought someone is having. I might be playing soccer, but the ball is my friend’s. When my friend passes me his ball I’m playing soccer with it, but I don’t own it — it is not mine. We must, at the very least, leave open the idea that a thought could be someone else’s, and the one doing the thinking be me.

The second thing to note is that it is not odd for someone to give us a thought, or put a thought into our head. When someone says something insightful and we react, saying, “huh, that’s interesting…” the individual plausibly has put a thought in our head. You couldn’t control that thought entering your mind and then bouncing about. This isn’t particularly strange.

The third thing to note is that it is not odd for someone else to make us think. In ordinary language we often say exactly that, “you really made me think the other day.” or “I couldn’t stop thinking after you told me such and such.” That you couldn’t stop thinking implies it wasn’t your choice — someone else made you do it. Thoughts can be put in our heads, and we can be made to think.

But what is problematic is when we don’t want to think about someone else or take in their thoughts, and yet they try to force us to. In the case of thought insertion, I contend that what is going on is thoughts penetrate your mind. Someone both puts a thought in your head and makes you think, when you don’t consent to it. This is what I’ll call Thought Penetration.

For example, suppose you get into a really bad fight with someone, and you don’t want to speak with them anymore, and so you simply walk away. What you’ve done is shown you are not open to receiving thoughts from them. They are a “waste of mental energy.” In other words, you are saying you do not consent to thinking about thoughts they have. You won’t play with their soccer balls. Call the one whom you are closed off to the aggressor and you, the one who is closed off, the blocker.

Sometimes we can’t walk away and so we blockers may put our hands over our ears and say, “I’m not listening to you!” Other times if our hands are bound we may begin to sing to ourselves in order to prevent the aggressor’s thoughts from going into our heads. You might ask why someone would do this. One answer, I think, is to remember Bernard Williams’ famous idea of one thought too many. 

Consider Othello who, after Iago whispers in his ears that Desdemona is committing acts of infidelity, cannot stop thinking about it. He can’t stop playing with Iago’s soccer ball, and this causes him grief. Why? Because the nature of his loving relationship was such that to even think that Desdemona was cheating on him was one thought too many to have. It was wrong for him to even think that — like how it would be inapt for a lover to imagine their loved one being brutally murdered. Sometimes if we let others whisper into our ears, it can — like in the case of Othello — destroy a relationship. 

What I contend happens in the case of thought penetration is that the blocker cannot stop the aggressor’s thoughts from entering his or her mind. He tried to close his ears. He tried to block their thoughts off with sheer willpower, but eventually the aggressor’s thoughts got in. In this way, the aggressor penetrated the blocker’s mind. The aggressor scored a goal with his soccer ball, and the blocker’s defenders and goalies couldn’t stop it. 

It is well-known that people can come down with schizophrenia under severely stressful social circumstances. Having experienced thought “insertion” myself, I can say that what happened to me was that I came to hate a particular party more than I loved those close to me, and so her — my aggressor’s — thoughts entered my mind. My loved ones were telling me I was a good person, but the aggressor the opposite, constantly and in a variety of ways, and I failed to block her.

My experience of mania reflected what it was like to have only my loved one’s thoughts in my head, and psychosis and depression what it was like to have my aggressor’s thoughts penetrate my mind. I was thought penetrated, and I experienced many of the later effects that rape victims do — nightmares, flashbacks, self-blame etc.

I wrote in a previous essay that self-expression is achieved through others who care about us. The idea was that we express the ideas, beliefs, and desires of other people whom we care about, not ourselves. The example I gave was one with children. When we see a little boy wearing his father’s favorite jersey by choice, or parroting his religious beliefs, we say, “I see your father in you…” this reflects the fact that the boy is expressing his father in what he does.

But the interesting thing about care is that it is not equivalent to love. I can hate someone more than I love another, and this means that I care about the former more than the latter. I may think about them more, pay them more mental energy, so to speak, and sometimes in very unflattering ways. 

What it is to be thought penetrated, I contend, is when you come to hate someone more than you love those close to you, and so you become receptive to their thoughts, and begin to express them. In this way, thought penetration is very much like rape. Prison rapes are sometimes referred to as “making you someone’s bitch,” and the idea is that when someone penetrates you by force, they make you subordinate to them through power, and the victims are forced to follow their commands. The same thing happens in thought penetration, where the victim no longer has control over the thoughts that go into his mind, and he is made to think for someone, who he didn’t consent to thinking for.

The victim also, tragically, feels he allowed it to happen. How could I let her take control of my emotions like that? How could I become receptive to her ugly thoughts about me? In this way, I believe thought penetration actually does constitute a form of rape, albeit of the mental, and not physical, kind.

8 thoughts on “A Thought on Thought Insertion

  1. This is a most interesting thought. I like that you have given a name to something commonly experienced. It is an experience very similar to that of an ‘ear worm‘, see
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earworm

    An earworm, sometimes known as a brainworm,[1] sticky music, stuck song syndrome,[2] or Involuntary Musical Imagery (IMI),[3] is a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person’s mind after it is no longer playing.[4] Phrases used to describe an earworm include “musical imagery repetition” and “involuntary musical imagery”.[1][5][6]

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  2. Ah, this is interesting. From the Earworm Wikipedia reference:
    Negishi and Sekiguchi found that some of the obsessive-compulsive traits, such as intrusive thoughts, played a role in experiencing earworms while compulsive washing did not

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  3. Peter,

    I actually have an 18 page essay coming out on gaslighting on the APA blog in a month. I’d love to hear your feedback when it is published. I agree gaslighting also can involve thought penetration.

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  4. I look forward to your essay. Gaslighting is a most malicious phenomenon since it involves altering, in a damaging way, a person’s perception of themselves and reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve actually found that the worst things that many people face today are not physical acts of violence, but some forms of manipulation, gaslighting, thought penetration, etc.

    in other words, non-physical aggressions. I suspect this has to do with the rise of stricter and stricter laws against physical violence. This, of course, is not to advocate for physical violence, just to point out a trend.

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  6. I’ve actually found that the worst things that many people face today are not physical acts of violence,

    That is a very interesting line of thought, something that I missed because I live in such a dangerous part of the world (>50 homicides per 100,000 people). From my perspective you live in a very safe part of the world.

    I suspect this has to do with the rise of stricter and stricter laws against physical violence.

    Yes, and more motivated policing, assisted by better surveillance and especially by better forensics.

    in other words, non-physical aggressions

    If anything aggression has increased though it has been channeled into non-physical outlets. The reasons for this are interesting. Society has always been in turbulent conflict, punctuated by periods of relative consensus on the nature of society and the direction it is taking.

    That period of consensus is ending for a variety of reasons and the increased aggression is a symptom of the decline in consensus.

    This resulting aggression has been multiplied by a shift from resolving disputes within the ambit of the rule of law to resolving them by individual action. Mass shootings are the most extreme example of that. A deeply aggrieved individual feels compelled to right, revenge or punish perceived wrongs by his own violent actions. But mostly this increased aggression takes non-violent forms.

    Contributing to this is the snowflake phenomenon. Resilience and hardiness has declined among younger generations. They are more easily aggrieved and quicker to seek remedial action for things that past generations would have shrugged off.

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