Do we elicit a sense of agency by inferring that our intentions cause actions?

It’s doubtful, is the short answer, but the long answer is more interesting. What I’m asking about today is the account of the sense of agency put forward by Daniel Wegner and various collaborators since the late ‘90’s (Aarts, Custers, & Wegner, 2005; Wegner, 2002; Wegner, Sparrow, & Winerman, 2004; Wegner & Wheatley, 1999). Their account can be read as either an alternative to or an addition to the comparator model account of the sense of agency which we have met in previous posts. Unlike the comparator model which hypothesises that the sense of agency is elicited by the same mechanisms that are responsible for action control, Wegner and colleagues’ account suggests that the sense of agency is elicited by an inference as to the internal causes of action. In its most basic form if I infer that one or other of mental states, usually on of my intentions, causes me to act in a certain way, then I experience a sense of agency for that action. But, that’s getting ahead of ourselves for the moment, so let’s remind ourselves what the sense of agency is.

“Imagine that you are moving swiftly down a flight of stairs. At the appropriate floor, you slow and reach for the door handle that will allow you egress from the stairwell. As you open the door, you find it moves far more rapidly than you had intended. Someone else is opening the door from the other side! Call this the simultaneous door-opening effect. This effect involves the feeling that one is the agent behind an action being suddenly replaced by the feeling that one is not the agent due to the interference of another.” (Carruthers, 2010, p. 345)

In this example, which is supposed to be fairly ordinary and mundane the sense of agency is just the feeling of being the agent who is performing/controlling/initiating (different authors prefer different descriptors here) action. That is the feeling which Wegner and colleagues’ are seeking to explain. So what, on their account, might be happening in the simultaneous door opening case? It seems that the agent of this action will, for a while, infer that their mental states, their intention to open the door say, is causing their action, and so they experience a sense of agency. But, after experiencing the effects of another on the door this inference is no longer plausible and so their sense of agency is lost or reduced.

In order to complete the model Wegner and colleagues owe us an account of how such inferences are made. Well that’s probably asking a bit much, but we would like an account that tells us something about what information the inference is based on and that makes predictions about when it is made. This is just what we get in the articles cited above. To be able to infer that one or other of one’s mental states are the cause of an action one needs to represent the action and a mental state that is a potential cause. Say opening a door and one’s intention to open the door. When do we infer that one’s intention caused the door to open? According to Wegner and colleagues we do so automatically when 3 further conditions are met. First, the intention must appear an appropriate time prior to the action, e.g. a memory of previously opening a door won’t be inferred as the cause of one currently opening the door. Call this the principle of priority. Second, the intention must be consistent with the action, i.e. it should specify that action, e.g. my desire to get a coke represents a different action than my intention to open the door so won’t be inferred as a cause of that action. Call this the principle of consistency. Third, the intention must be represented as the exclusive cause of the action. Call this the principle of exclusivity. This is what is violated in the door opening scenario, in that case the subject perceives that another agent is also opening the door and so their intention to open the door isn’t an exclusive cause of it opening. As such their sense of agency is reduced.

Wegner and colleagues’ studies looked to confirm this model by attempting to elicit a sense of agency for actions not controlled by the subject. They do so by creating circumstances where to the subject it appears that the principles of priority and consistency are met. Typically it is clear to the subject that the principle of exclusivity is not met. However, as each of the three principles are considered to contribute to the sense of agency, and the sense itself is conceived of as being formed by continuum, it is hypothesised that subjects in these studies should report a weak sense of agency rather than a full or absent sense.

If we allow the assumption that the inference that one’s intention is the cause of an action is mandatory, i.e. that the subject must make it when the principles are met, then combined with the above assumption about a continuum of senses of agency, some studies do support Wegner and colleagues’ model. For example, in the helping hands study (Wegner et al., 2004), subjects reported a weak sense of agency for other people’s actions:

“In this study, one subject (the participant) stood with their back against the second subject (the helper). The participant stood with their arms by their side, whilst the helper reached their arms forward underneath the participant’s arms. A screen obscured the helper in such a way that their arms appeared (from the front) to be those of the participant. Both subjects were given head phones. The helpers heard a series of instructions to perform a set of hand movements (e.g. make the ok sign with both hands). The participants were divided into three groups depending on what they heard. One group (the preview group) heard the instructions to the helper whilst the other groups (the control groups) heard either nothing or an instruction to perform a movement other than what the helper heard. Those in the preview group reported a greater sense of agency over the movements of the helper than either of the control groups (Wegner et al. 2004, pp. 841 & 842).” (Carruthers, 2010, p. 346).

A variety of studies, mostly coming from Wegner and his collaborators, seem to confirm that subject’s experiences of their own agency can be altered by playing with the principles of priority, consistency and exclusivity. As such we have good reason to consider this model a viable explanation of the sense of agency.

As I said above, though, I think it is doubtful that it is making such an inference that causes subjects to experience a sense of agency. The reason for this, is that such an account ties the sense of agency to the subject’s knowledge of their mental states, in particular their intentions. This, it seems, we have good reason to question as some subjects seem to experience a sense of agency even when they don’t know what their intentions are.

A study by Montgomery and Lightner (2004) provides an illustrative example. They began by showing young children (3-4 years old) a picture of a ball. They then copied the picture by holding their child’s drawing hand (with the child’s eyes closed) and moving the hand in a circle. The child then watched the experimenter alter the picture to be a picture of a clock. In comparison conditions the child either produced a copy of the picture of a ball themselves or produced the copy themselves and then watched as the experimenter changed it to a picture of a clock. After the picture of a clock or ball was produced in this way the child was asked who had produced the (final) picture. This was relatively easy for 3-4 year olds, most of whom were able to accurately state who drew the final picture. That is they were able to identify the agent of the action, suggesting they experienced a sense of agency. Despite this, in the conditions where the experimenter changed the picture of a ball to a picture of the clock, the children tended to claim that they had tried (i.e. intended) to produce a picture of a clock. In other words, although the children where good at keeping track of who the agent of the action was, they were poor at knowing their own intentions. Even though they knew it was the experimenter and not themselves who had drawn the clock, they nevertheless claimed that they had tried to produce the picture of a clock.

Lost? Fair enough. The point is in this study children knew who had done what (so they had a sense of agency) but they did not know what their intentions where. So it seems that a sense of agency is not dependent on knowing what one’s intentions are, as predicted by Wegner and colleagues’ model. So it is, as I say, doubtful that we elicit a sense of agency by inferring that our intentions cause our actions.

with love


A more complete version of this argument is published in: Carruthers, G. (2010). A problem for Wegner and colleagues’ model of the sense of agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9, 341–357.


Aarts, H., Custers, R., & Wegner, D. M. (2005). On the inference of personal authorship: enhancing experienced agency by priming effect information. Consciousness and Cognition, 14, 439–458.

Carruthers, G. (2010). A problem for Wegner and colleagues’ model of the sense of agency. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9, 341–357.

Montgomery, D. E., & Lightner, M. (2004). Children’s developing understanding of differences between their own intentional action and passive movement. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 22, 417–438.

Wegner, D. M. (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will. MIT Press.

Wegner, D. M., Sparrow, B., & Winerman, L. (2004). Vicarious Agency: Experiencing control over the movements of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(6), 838–848.

Wegner, D. M., & Wheatley, T. (1999). Apparent mental causation: sources of the experience of will. American Psychologist, 54(7), 480–492.

The Rubber Hand Illusion and Representation Using Similarity

I finally wrote a new blog, but over at Imperfect Cognitions. Two parts on the Rubber Hand Illusion and Quality/Conceptual Spaces.

Part 1

Part 2

My main paper on this is: (2013) “Toward a Cognitive Model of the Sense of Embodiment in a (Rubber) Hand” in Journal of Consciousness Studies 20(3-4) pp. 33-60

but some of the others on my publications page are also relevant.

With love


What do out of body experiences tell us about self-consciousness; Or, Disorders of Self-Consciousness Part 5

“I awoke at night – it must have been about 3am – and realized that I was completely unable to move. I was absolutely certain I was not dreaming, as I was enjoying full consciousness. Filled with fear about my condition I only had one goal, namely, being able to move my body again. I concentrated all my will power and tried to roll over to one side: something rolled, but not my body – something that was me, my whole consciousness, including all of its sensations. I rolled onto the floor beside the bed. While this happened, I did not feel bodiless, but as if my body consisted of a substance constituted of a mixture between gaseous and liquid states. To the present day I have never forgotten the combination of amazement and great surprise which gripped me while I felt myself falling onto the floor, but the expected hard bounce never took place. Actually had the movement unfolded in my normal body, my head would have had to collide with the edge of my bedside table. Lying on the floor, I was seized by terrible fear and panic. I knew that I possessed a body, and I only had one great desire – to be able to control it again. With a sudden jolt I regained control, without knowing how I managed to get back to it” (Metzinger, 2003, p. 491; translated from Waelti, E., 1983 by Thomas Metzinger).

“After running approximately 12-13 miles… I started to feel as if I wasn’t looking through my eyes but from somewhere else… I felt as if something was leaving my body, and although I was still running along looking at the scenery, I was looking at myself running as well. My “soul” or whatever, was floating somewhere above my body high enough up to see the tops of the trees and small hills” (Alvarado, 2000, p. 184).

These are out of body experiences (or OBE). They are short lived experiences which occur in a variety of contexts, most commonly when lying down (Zingrone, Alvarado, & Cardeña, 2010), especially during sleep paralysis (Cheyne & Girard, 2009; Girard & Cheyne, 2004) but also during epileptic seizures (Devinsky, Feldmann, Burrowes, & Bromfield, 1989), during physical trauma  and in plenty of other contexts, including use of some recreational drugs. Like all odd experiences, especially those which not all of us share, it’s very difficult to define such experiences — neither is it clear that defining experiences is a particularly productive. But, I’d like to give you some sense of the broader set of experiences which I’m going to be talking about; so let me point to a central feature that all OBEs share. An OBE is any experience in which the subject (i.e. the person having the experience) feels like they are spatially separate from their body. This can involve an experience of seeing their body, but this is not universally the case (Blackmore, 1984).

Apart from being intrinsically fascinating such experiences tell us something about consciousness in general, but also about self-consciousness in particular. It is this later implication which I wish to focus on today. Specifically the way in which the self is experienced during OBEs highlights some aspects of self-consciousness which are easily overlooked by merely reflecting on our own experiences, in particular it highlights that there are two particularly “selfy” ways in which we experience our own bodies.

The first striking thing about OBEs is that during the experience the subject’s “real” self seems to be external to their body. I find this really weird, when I experience myself I always experience myself as within my body – just behind my eyes, I’m just unlucky I suppose. What’s more, in those cases where the subject does see their body they know that it is their own body they see – even when it doesn’t particularly look like their body (Blanke, Ortigue, Landis, & Seeck, 2002).

Taken at face value then, we might think that OBEs tell us that there are two types of experience that need to be explained by a theory of self-consciousness. Simplistically i) the experience of one’s mind and point of view – the “real” or “essential” self and ii) the experience of the body as the thing which usually houses this “real” self.  Thus, quick reflection on OBEs suggests an experiential basis for a particularly Western notion of the self as a mental entity (temporarily) housed within a body. Indeed Cheyne and Girard (2009) have suggested that the distinction between these experiences gives rise to this view, which they call “common sense dualism”. Metzinger (2005) has even suggested that OBEs themselves are the origin of our concept of a “soul”.

It is a mistake, however, to think that these are the kinds of self-conscious experiences we should be aiming to explain. If we take a closer look at OBEs then it begins to look as though i and ii do not accurately describe experience of the self.

For one thing, the mind or point of view is not always experienced as the “real” self. Sometimes, it is the body which feels as though it is the “real” self. This occurs in related experiences called ‘heautoscopy’[1]. Here are some classic reports of heautoscopy:

“Quite suddenly every-thing seems strange, and people’s voices become very faint. I feel that my head is dividing into two. The second head seems to flow off my normal head, and to take up a position a little behind and to the right of it. This ‘astral’ head appears in the form of a vague, misty shape with a black outline. I feel that it is the detached head that contains my mind” (Todd, 1955, p. 702).


“I become aware of an invisible double stationed a yard away on my left. This shadowy double seems to contain my mind” (Todd, 1955, p. 703).

In these cases the subject is reporting an experience in which a second body seems to contain the mind, whilst the “real” self appears to remain with the real body. So it seems that i) is wrong.

For another thing, during an OBE subjects do not always experience their point of view or mind as independent from a body. Quite often (Blackmore, 1984) they experience two distinct bodies, one of which is seen (prototypically around the place where the real body is) and the other which is felt to be spatially separate from the real body and to contain the subject’s point of view. Indeed the very first example quoted above seems like this.

So then, this is what I think OBEs suggest needs to be explained by a theory of self-consciousness. A) The experience of being a mental entity, with a point of view, this commonly seems to be the “real” self, but sometimes this will conflict with B) the experience of being a bodily entity and C) The experience of the body as one’s own body, which typically is identical with the body in B – although they dissociate in OBEs – and which typically contains the mind and point of view – although they dissociate in OBEs.

All in all then, the very complexity of these contents is making explaining how they get fixed a very challenging task.

For my argument that the complexity of self-consciousness in OBEs is often underappreciated plus some more on how to redescribe the OBEs in light of these complexities see:

(in press) “Who am I in Out of Body Experiences? Implications from OBEs for the explanandum of a theory of self-consciousness” in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

For how to explain what I’ve labelled above as experience B see:

(2013) “Toward a Cognitive Model of the Sense of Embodiment in a (Rubber) Hand” in Journal of Consciousness Studies 20(3-4) pp. 33-60

(2009) “Is the Body Schema Sufficient for the Sense of Embodiment? An Alternative to de Vignemont’s Model” in Philosophical Psychology 22(2) pp.123-142

(2008) “Reply to Tsakiris and Fotopoulou ‘Is my body the sum of online and offline body representations’” in Consciousness and Cognition 17 pp..1321-1323

(2008) “Types of Body Representation and the Sense of Embodiment” in Consciousness and Cognition 17 pp.1302-1316

With love, DrNPC


Alvarado, C. S. (2000). Out-of-body experiences. In E. Carde, S. J. Lynn, & S. Krippner (Eds.), Varieties of anomalous experience:  Examining the scientific evidence (pp. 183–218). Washington,  DC,  US: American Psychological Association.

Blackmore, S. J. (1984). A postal survey of OBEs and other experiences. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 52(796), 225–244.

Blanke, O., Ortigue, S., Landis, T., & Seeck, M. (2002). Stimulating illusory own-body perceptions. Nature, 419(6904), 269–270.

Cheyne, J. A., & Girard, T. A. (2009). The body unbound: Vestibular–motor hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. Cortex, 45(2), 201.

Devinsky, O., Feldmann, E., Burrowes, K., & Bromfield, E. (1989). Autoscopic phenomena with seizures. Archives of Neurology, 46(10), 1080.

Girard, T., & Cheyne, J. (2004). Spatial characteristics of hallucinations associated with sleep paralysis. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 9(4), 281–300.

Metzinger, T. (2003). Being No One: The Self Model Theory of Subjectivity. MIT Press.

Metzinger, T. (2005). Out-of-Body Experiences as the Origin of the Concept of a’Soul’. Mind and Matter, 3(1), 57–84.

Todd, J. (1955). The Syndrome of Alice in Wonderland. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 73(9), 701–704.

Waelti, E. (1983). Der dritte Kreis des Wissens. Interlaken: Ansata.

Zingrone, N. L., Alvarado, C. S., & Cardeña, E. (2010). Out-of-Body Experiences and Physical Body Activity and Posture. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 198(2), 163–165. doi:10.1097/NMD.0b013e3181cc0d6d


[1] Yes, plenty have people have complained about the word ‘heautoscopy’ – though to my mind it isn’t nearly as bad as ‘diaphanousness’.