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A term indicating organic functions, or inhibitions, not controlled by the conscious self. The word "automatism" is actually a misnomer, as the acts, or inhibitions, are only automatic from the viewpoint of personal consciousness and they may offer the characteristic features of voluntary acts on the part of another consciousness.

F. W. H. Myers divided the phenomena of automatism into two principal classes: motor-automatism (the movement of the limbs, head, or tongue by an inner motor impulse beyond the conscious will) and sensory automatism (externalization of perceptions in inner vision and audition). The first he called "active," the second "passive" automatism, stressing, however, that the impulse from which it originates may be much the same in that one case as in the other. This place of origin is either the subconscious self or a discarnate intelligence. Myers suggested that the excitation of the motor or sensory centers may take place either through the subconscious (subliminal) mind, or the communicating intelligence may find some direct way, for which he proposed the name "telergic."

The phenomena of automatism are often accompanied by organic disturbances, or changes in vasomotor, circulatory, and respiratory systems. The sensory impressions are sometimes accompanied by a feeling of malaise, which is noticeable even in such simple cases as telepathy. In the phenomena of dowsing, the disturbance is much keener.

Incapacity for action is an almost rudimentary type of motor-automatism. It may result from a simple subconscious perception or it may be induced by an outside agency to save the subject from grave peril, e.g., from entering a house that is about to collapse or boarding a train that will be derailed. An instructive instance is quoted by Theodore Flournoy from his experiments with Héléne Smith:

"One day Miss Smith, when desiring to lift down a large and heavy object which lay on a high shelf, was prevented from doing so because her raised arm remained for some seconds as though petrified in the air and incapable of movement. She took this as a warning and gave up the attempt. At a subsequent séance, "Leopold" stated that it was he who thus fixed Helen's arm to prevent her from grasping this object which was much too heavy for her and would have caused her some accident."

This record of spirit cure was published in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (Vol. 3: 182-87):

"On August 17, 1891, the patient felt for the first time a unique sensation, accompanied by formication and sense of weight in the lower limbs, especially in the feet. This sensation gradually spread over the rest of the body, and when it reached the arms, the hands and forearms began to rotate. These phenomena recurred after dinner every evening, as soon as the patient was quiet in her armchair. The patient placed her two hands on a table. The feeling of "magnetisation" then began in the feet, which began to rotate and the upper parts of the body gradually shared in the same movement. At a certain point, the hands automatically detached themselves from the table by small, gradual shocks, and at the same time the arms assumed a tetanic rigidity somewhat resembling catalepsy.

"One day Mme. X. felt herself lifted from her armchair and compelled to stand upright. Her feet and her whole body then executed a systematic calisthenic exercise, in which all the movements were regulated and made rhythmic with finished art. Mme. X. had never had the smallest notion of chamber gymnastics. These movements would have been very painful and fatiguing had she attempted them of her own will. Yet at the end of each performance she was neither fatigued nor out of breath.. Mme. X is accustomed to arrange her own hair. One morning she said laughingly: 'I wish that a Court hairdresser would do my hair for me: my arms are tired.' At once she felt her hands acting automatically, and with no fatigue for her arms, which seemed to be held up; and the result was a complicated coiffure, which in no way resembled her usual simple mode of arrangement. The oddest of all these automatic phenomena consisted in extremely graceful gestures which Mme. X. was caused to execute with her arms, gestures as though of evocation or adoration of some imaginary divinity, or gestures of benediction. The few persons who witnessed this spectacle are agreed that it was worthy of the powers of the greatest actress. Of such a gift Mme. X. has nothing."

Dr. F. L. H. Willis claimed that he performed a difficult and delicate surgical operation in trance while controlled by "Dr. Mason." At that time Willis had not even started to study medicine.

Myers classified the motor messages in the order of their increasing specialization:

  1. Massive motor impulses. Case of the bricklayer (Phantasms of the Living Vol. 377), who had a sudden impulse to run home and arrived just in time to save the life of his little boy, who had set himself on fire. Case of Mr. Garrison, who left a religious service in the evening and walked 18 miles under a strong impulse to see his mother, then found her dead (Journal of the Society for Psychical Research Vol. 3: 125). Included under this heading the phenomenon of ambulatory automatism: moving about in a secondary state, as a result of an irresistible impulse, and forgetting all about it on return to normal consciousness. It is noticeable in subjects affected with nervous diseases. The mysterious transportation of the Italian Pansini children was attributed by some Italian scientists to this cause.
  2. Simple subliminal motor impulses that give rise to table tilting and similar phenomena. Georgina Houghton wrote in Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance (1881) that on one occasion, being anxious to find her way to a house which she had not visited for several years, she entrusted herself to spirit guides and arrived safely.
  3. Musical execution, subliminally initiated. Jesse Shepard, the famous musical medium, George Aubert, and many child prodigies furnish cases of absorbing interest. The heading should be widened to include cases of contagious dancing witnessed in religious revivals, or cases like that of Lina, studied by Col. Eugene Auguste-A. D. Rochas, and Madeleine, studied by Emile Magnin, both girls exhibiting remarkable histrionic and dancing talent in trance.
  4. Automatic drawing and painting.
  5. Automatic writing.
  6. Automatic speech.
  7. Telekinetic movements.

J. Maxwell suggested in his Metapsychical Phenomena (1905) the following classification:

  1. Simple muscular automatism: typtology, alphabetic systems.
  2. Graphic muscular automatism: automatic writing, drawing, and painting.
  3. Phonetic automatism: trance speaking.
  4. Mixed automatism: incarnations.

Sensory automatism embraces the phenomena of clairvoyance, clairaudience, and crystal gazing. Therefore, according to Myers's scheme, the bulk of the phenomena of psychical research would range under the heading: automatism.

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Properly speaking, "automatism" is not a concept, but rather a term that, like the adjective "automatic" or the adverb "automatically," has several definitions. It can mean "mental operations or activities without the involvement of the will, activities rendered automatic by habit, regularity in the completion of certain acts, or a set of involuntary activities or impulses" (LantériLaura, 1992).

The term "automatism" refers to an activity carried out without the participation of the will. Once the activity is triggered, it becomes a mechanism that functions by itself. This notion of automatism, derived from the philosophic and medical traditions, provided the eighteenth century with a model, though reductionist, for global and hegemonic knowledge of the physical and biological worlds and, in the biological world, for human behavior. (La Mettrie published Man a Machine in 1746.) Later, because of advances in chemistry that revealed very different levels of organization in the two worlds, the model of automatism seemed on the contrary to control only vegetative life, corresponding to the autonomic nervous system, and involved only one part of the life functions, that of muscular mechanics. In this era, a simultaneously morphological and functional opposition was conceived between a less automatic superior level and a more automatic inferior level.

From John Huglings Jackson's work on epilepsy in the nineteenth century emerged a highly elaborated representation of the function and dysfunction of the central nervous system and the discovery of a specific attackrelated to lesionson the automatisms in question. Thus a disorganization of a hierarchical structure suppressed a function and freed what the suppressed function had previously controlledone automatism disappeared and the other remained uncontrolled.

This notion of an automatism proper to the functioning of the central nervous system found several examples in the field of psychiatry, for instance, the work of Valentin Magnan and his notion of impulse, that of Jules Seglas defining the relation between verbal hallucinations and aphasias, the psychological automatism of Pierre Janet, and finally the mental automatism of Georges de Clérambault and the work of Henri Ey, which was greatly influenced by John H. Jackson.

What is involved is a definition of automatism that situates it as mechanism that is "under control." It becomes pathogenic and pathological as soon as such control ceases. Meanwhile, there emerges another definition of automatism that situates it instead on the side of the creative force, of a more lively and original inspiration.

The word automatisch appeared very rarely in Freud. In one of its earliest occurrences (the case of Dora, 1905e [1901]), it is apparent that he is borrowing vocabulary that is not his own: "I give the name of symptomatic acts to those acts which people perform, as we say, automatically, unconsciously, without attending to them, or as if in a moment of distraction" (p. 76). Then, in the metapsychological texts, the word is used in three limited senses: a) the regulation of (unconscious) automatic processes by the pleasure principle (Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920g); b) so-called "automatic" anxiety when it is a question of the origin or the "automatic" appearance of anxiety (Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, 1926d); and occasionally, c) the process of repression (1926d).

The noun Automatismus, "automatism," is also very rarely found in Freud's works. When Freud refers to it in Inhibition, Symptoms, and Anxiety in relation to the process of repression, he prefers the term "compulsion to repeat": "The new impulse will run its course under an automatic influenceor, as I should prefer to say, under the influence of the compulsion to repeat. It will follow the same path as the earlier repressed impulse, as if the danger-situation that had been overcome still existed" (p. 153). In the New Introductory Lectures (1933a [1932]), the term is directly connected to the principle of pleasure-unpleasure, in a sense essentially based on the (automatic) mode of regulation of unconscious processes, but that merges with anxiety and repression.

The term was used more frequently by Jacques Lacan, specifically starting in the fifties, when, under the influence of cybernetics, the question of automatons was on his mind. And so pure automatism became an essentially psychotic phenomenon.

Today the term, still being enriched by new mathematical models, could clarify for us a certain mode of the functioning of mental processes.

Pascale Michon-Raffaitin

See also: Compulsion; Janet, Pierre; Letter, the; Repetition compulsion; Subconscious; Trauma.


Freud, Sigmund. (1905e [1901]). Fragment of an analysis of a case of hysteria. SE, 7: 1-122.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE, 18: 1-64.

. (1926d). Inhibitions, symptoms, and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.

. (1933a). New introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. SE, 22: 1-182.

Lantéri-Laura, Georges. (1992). Psychiatrie et connaissance. Paris: Sciences en situation.

La Mettrie, Julien Offray de. (1746). Man a machine. La Salle, IL: Open Court Classics, 1912.

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An involuntary act such as sleepwalking that is performed in a state of unconsciousness. The subject does not act voluntarily and is not fully aware of his or her actions while in a state of automatism. Automatism has been used as a defense to show that a defendant lacked the requisite mental state for the commission of a crime. A defense based on automatism asserts that there was no act in the legal sense because at the time of the alleged crime, the defendant had no psychic awareness or volition. Some American jurisdictions have recognized automatism as a complete, affirmative defenseto most criminal charges. Aninsanity defense, by comparison, asserts that the accused possessed psychic awareness or volition, but at the time of the offense, the accused possessed a mental disorder or defect that caused them to commit the offense or prevented them from understanding the wrongness of the offense.

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au·tom·a·tism / ôˈtäməˌtizəm/ • n. the performance of actions without conscious thought or intention. ∎  Art the avoidance of conscious intention in producing works of art, esp. by using mechanical techniques or subconscious associations. ∎  an action performed unconsciously or involuntarily.

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automatism (aw-tom-ă-tizm) n. behaviour that may be associated with epilepsy, in which the patient performs well-organized movements or tasks while unaware of doing so.