Influencing Machine

On the Origin of the “Influencing Machine” in Schizophrenia is a highly influential article written by German psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk in 1919. The paper describes Tausk’s observations and psychoanalytic interpretation of a type of paranoid delusion that occurs in patients diagnosed with schizophrenia. The delusion often involves their being influenced by a ‘diabolical machine,’ just outside the technical understanding of the victim, that influences them from afar.

It was typically believed to be operated by a group of people who were persecuting the individual, whom Tausk suggested were ‘to the best of my knowledge, almost exclusively of the male sex’ and the persecutors, ‘predominantly physicians by whom the patient has been treated.’ These delusions are known in contemporary psychiatry as ‘passivity delusions’ or ‘passivity phenomena’ and are listed among Kurt Schneider’s ‘first rank’ symptoms which are thought to be particularly diagnostic of schizophrenia, and still form some of the core diagnostic criteria.

The schizophrenic influencing machine is a machine of mystical nature. The patients are able to give only vague hints of its construction. It consists of boxes, cranks, levers, wheels, buttons, wires, batteries, and the like. Patients endeavor to discover the construction of the apparatus by means of their technical knowledge, and it appears that with the progressive popularization of the sciences, all the forces known to technology are utilized to explain the functioning of the apparatus. All the discoveries of mankind, however, are regarded as inadequate to explain the marvelous powers of this machine, by which the patients feel themselves persecuted.

Patient’s often report that the machines make them ‘see pictures.’ When this is the case, the machine is generally a magic lantern or cinematograph. The pictures are seen on a single plane, on walls or window panes, and unlike typical visual hallucinations are not three dimensional. Influencing machines are also described as capable of removing thoughts and feelings by means of waves or rays or mysterious forces. In such cases, the machine is often called a ‘suggestion-apparatus.’ Its construction cannot be explained, but its function consists in the transmission or ‘draining off’ of thoughts and feelings by one or several persecutors.

Influencing machines are also blamed for motor phenomena in the body, erections, and seminal emissions, that are intended to deprive the patient of his male potency and weaken him. This is accomplished either by means of suggestion or by air-currents, electricity, magnetism, or X-rays. It is also responsible for other occurrences in the patient’s body, such as cutaneous eruptions, abscesses, or other pathological processes.

The most well-known example of the influencing machine delusion is that of James Tilly Matthews who believed he was being controlled ‘body and mind’ by a device called the ‘Air Loom.’ Matthews was a tea merchant and political activist before he was admitted to the Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam) after shouting ‘treason’ in the British House of Commons in 1797. He was a prolific writer and artist and described the ‘air loom’ in great detail.

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