1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Automatism

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AUTOMATISM. In philosophical terminology this word is used in two main senses: (1) in ethics, for the view that man is not responsible for his actions, which have, therefore, no moral value; (2) in psychology, for all actions which are not the result of conation or conscious endeavour. Certain actions being admittedly automatic, Descartes maintained that, in regard of the lower animals, all action is purely mechanical. The same theory has since been applied to man, with this difference that, accompanying the mechanical phenomena of action, and entirely disconnected with it, are the phenomena of consciousness. Thus certain physical changes in the brain result in a given action; the concomitant mental desire or volition is in no sense causally connected with, or prior to, the physical change. This theory, which has been maintained by T. Huxley (Science and Culture) and Shadworth Hodgson (Metaphysic of Experience and Theory of Practice), must be distinguished from that of the psychophysical parallelism, or the “double aspect theory” according to which both the mental state and the physical phenomena result from a so-called “mind stuff,” or single substance, the material or cause of both.

Automatic acts are of two main kinds. Where the action goes on while the attention is focused on entirely different subjects (e.g. in cycling), it is purely automatic. On the other hand, if the attention is fixed on the end or on any particular part of a given action, and the other component parts of the action are performed unconsciously, the automatism may be called relative.

See G. F. Stout, Anal. Psych. i. 258 foll.; Win. James, Princ. of Psych. i. chap. 5; also the articles Psychology, Suggestion, &c.

Sensory Automatism is the term given by students of psychical research to a centrally initiated hallucination. Such hallucinations are commonly provoked by crystal-gazing (q.v.), but auditory hallucinations may be caused by the use of a shell (shell-hearing), and the other senses are occasionally affected.

Motor Automatism, on the other hand, is a non-reflex movement of a voluntary muscle, executed in the waking state but not controlled by the ordinary waking consciousness. Phenomena of this kind play a large part in primitive ceremonies of divination (q.v.) and in our own day furnish much of the material of Psychical Research. At the lowest level we have vague movements of large groups of muscles, as in “bier-divination,” where the murderer or his residence is inferred from the actions of the bearers; of a similar character but combined with more specialized action are many kinds of witch seeking. These more specialized actions are most typically seen in the Divining Rod (q.v.; see also Table-Turning), which indicates the presence of water and is used among the uncivilized to trace criminals. At a higher stage still we have the delicate movements necessary for Automatic Writing (q.v.) or Drawing. A parallel case to Automatic Writing is the action of the speech centres, resulting in the production of all kinds of utterances from trance speeches in the ordinary language of the speaker to mere unintelligible babblings. An interesting form of speech automatism is known as Glossolalia; in the typical case of Helène Smith, Th. Flournoy has shown that these utterances may reach a higher plane and form a real language, which is, however, based on one already known to the speaker.

See Man (1904), No. 68; Folklore, xiii. 134; Myers in Proc. S.P.R. ix. 26, xii. 277, xv. 403; Flournoy, Des Indes à la planète Mars and in Arch. de Psychologie; Myers, Human Personality.  (N. W. T.)