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 them 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 are "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. The main effects of the influencing machine are the following:
- 1. It makes the patient 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 windowpanes, and unlike typical visual hallucinations are not three dimensional.
- 2. It produces, as well as removes, thoughts and feelings by means of waves or rays or mysterious forces which the patient's knowledge of physics is inadequate to explain. 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.
- 3. It produces 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.
- 4. It creates sensations that in part cannot be described, because they are strange to the patient himself, and that in part are sensed as electrical, magnetic, or due to air-currents.
- 5. It is also responsible for other occurrences in the patient's body, such as cutaneous eruptions, abscesses, or other pathological processes.
Tausk's paper has been highly influential within both his own field of psychoanalysis and outside. It has in more recent years been used in literary theory to explain character's de-centeredness from their surroundings and their psychical collapse into psychosis; furthermore, the idea of the great alien machine taken over the human race have been more present in the arts.
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 'Bedlam' psychiatric hospital 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. His descriptions were published as a book entitled Illustrations of Madness: Exhibiting a Singular Case of Insanity, And a No Less Remarkable Difference in Medical Opinions: Developing the Nature of An Assailment, And the Manner of Working Events; with a Description of Tortures Experienced by Bomb-Bursting, Lobster-Cracking and Lengthening the Brain. Embellished with a Curious Plate.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a novel by Ken Kesey (1962). Kesey's novel is in the form of a first-person narrative by Chief Bromden, a Native American and one of McMurphy's fellow patients. McMurphy is a prison ward transfer who pretends to be insane to get out of working. His plan backfires when he is sent to a psychiatric hospital. He tries to liven the place up a bit by playing card games and basketball with his fellow patients, but the head nurse, Ms. Ratched a.k.a. Big Nurse, is after him at every turn. McMurphy wins at first, but then loses it all. Bromden refers to the negative forces of the world collectively as the "Combine," the very force which tries to suppress people like McMurphy. Tausk’s ”influencing machine” is very clear in this book when looking at Bromden. The film (1975) is much less introspective than Kesey's book and focuses mostly on the conflict between McMurphy and Ratched.
Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander (1978). The activist Jerry Mander's book argues for the complete removal of television from our lives because of its ill effects. Mander gives the example of Tausk's "Influencing machine" as being a good parallel to the television: 'Doubtless you have noticed that this "influencing machine" sounds an awful lot like television ... In any event, there is no question that television does what the schizophrenic fantasy says it does. It places in our minds images of reality which are outside our experience. The pictures come in the form of rays from a box. They cause changes in feeling and ... utter confusion as to what is real and what is not.’