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What is Automatism?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 27, 2024
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Automatism is a phenomenon in which someone makes a gesture or movement without conscious volition. On a low level, it can take the form of a fidget or tic which the person cannot control and may not be aware of. On a more advanced level, people can engage in acts like holding conversations, driving cars, and so forth, without actually controlling their options. While automatism often pops in the newspaper in the “how strange” section, it can actually be very serious, and is far from a curiosity for people who experience it and the people around them.

There are a number of reasons for automatism to occur. In some cases, certain medications can cause people to engage in activities as though they are awake when they are actually not conscious. Certain psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia are also associated with automatism, as are neurological conditions like seizures. In some types of seizures, people can engage in acts which appear voluntary while they are actually undergoing a seizure.

Once automatism is recognized in a patient, there are a number of treatment options. Making family and friends aware of the fact that someone may do something without actually choosing to do so can ensure that people will watch out for obvious dangers. Sometimes, adjusting medications will eliminate the problem, or working with the patient in psychotherapy will help the patient address the automatism so that it happens less frequently.

Famously, automatism has been used as a legal defense on several occasions and in various legal cases. The legal argument for this is that while the perpetrator may have committed the act in question, the perpetrator lacked the will to commit the crime, acting literally as an automaton or robot. Therefore, it would be unreasonable to hold the defendant accountable for the crime, since the defendant couldn't have controlled the actions which led to the commission of a crime.

When automatism is used in a court of law, the defendant usually needs to undergo extensive screening. Obviously, many defendants would love to wiggle out of responsibility for a crime by claiming that they acted without volition, so it is critical to determine whether or not the defendant could have exhibited automatism at the time of the crime. A history of such acts can bolster the case, as can an evaluation in which the patient demonstrably has a condition associated with the phenomenon of automatism.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By starrynight — On Oct 01, 2011

@indemnifyme - Automatism does sound like it could be quite upsetting for someone who suffers from it.

However, I think someone with this condition could really do some serious damage. It is not safe to have someone driving a car that has no control over what they're doing! People with known automatism definitely should not be allowed to have a license to drive.

By indemnifyme — On Oct 01, 2011

I've experienced automatism on a low-level before. Sometimes, when I get really upset or I'm having an emotional conversation, my eyelid will start twitching. I can't do anything to stop it, which is very frustrating. I just have to calm down and wait for it to stop!

I really feel for people that have to deal with more serious levels of automatism though. I can't imagine taking part in a conversation or doing something, and not having control over myself. And then maybe not even remembering performing the action. I think this would be very stressful.

By Esther11 — On Sep 30, 2011

Some people who have OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) may seem to have automatism. They might rattle the door handle many times, checking to see if it is locked. They are aware of the action, but just feel like they have to keep doing it to relieve stress.

Automatism is something very different.

Throughout my life, I have noticed a lot of people who have odd jerks of their legs or other body parts.

No matter what the cause of these movements might be (there are many), help is available. It's so sad when children aren't taken in for treatment. Even if the involuntary movements don't happen very often, it can be devastating to a child.

By drtroubles — On Sep 30, 2011

@manykitties2 - If your brother does indeed have the symptoms of oral automatism I would suggest you have him go in to see a doctor. There are medications that your brother could take that may help him be able to overcome his symptoms and help others to feel more comfortable around him.

My mother used to whisper constantly, and she never knew she was doing it. It was quite strange if you didn't know her personally, so she often stayed indoors. We took her to a doctor and she was given some medication that really helped her to have more control over what she did.

By manykitties2 — On Sep 29, 2011

Is it possible that someone who is always muttering under their breath is suffering from oral automatism?

My brother is always talking to himself, or seemingly to himself, yet he never really recalls doing it. I am always asking him what he was saying, and that I didn't catch it, and he never remembers. It seems like just as big a surprise to him that he is muttering all the time.

I must admit that I love my brother, but find this condition really embarrassing. I wish we could figure out what to do to make him stop talking in a way that makes him look crazy to an outsider.

By chivebasil — On Sep 29, 2011

I have noticed lately that I have been blinking a lot. This is something that has only come up within the last year. I am not consciously blinking and there is nothing irritating my eyes but for some reason they blink uncontrollably all the same.

I have looked at myself in the mirror and sometimes I am blinking without even realizing it. Its like my eyes have a mind of their won. Is this automatism and is this a symptom of something greater? I haven't seen a doctor or anything because there is no pain but I am really starting to get worried that something is up with my body.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Sep 28, 2011

I had a childhood friend who suffered from some kind of disorder and one of the symptoms was automatism. About once every 10 or fifteen minutes his hand would shoot up in front of his body and he would start wiggling his fingers next to each other. Honestly, it was pretty weird the first couple of times I saw it but you quickly got used to it and before long didn't notice it at all.

I know that he felt a lot of shame and frustration over his condition. he had no control whatsoever over it and sometimes it came out at particularly embarrassing times. felt so sorry for him. Imagine not having control over your own body.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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