Who Are You? Philosophy Expert Shares Fresh Viewpoint on Schizophrenia and Sense of Self

By Erika Krull, MS, LMHP

Schizophrenia is a challenging and often misunderstood disorder. Its symptoms can include delusions, hallucinations, and a loss of connection with the outside world. A person’s sense of self is also at risk with schizophrenia. Because the symptoms affect a person’s ability to distinguish their inner world from the outer world, they can also lose touch of where they begin and end as a person.

Researchers and mental health clinicians have done much to examine schizophrenia as a mental illness. But input from other academic disciplines, like philosophy, can bring forth new insight. John Campbell, professor of philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley, spoke in a podcast interview for the website Philosophy Bites about recent studies on schizophrenia and brain anatomy.[1]

Campbell has looked into some of these studies with great interest as a philosopher. In a recent podcast, he discussed how a person’s sense of self is in turmoil when schizophrenia develops. He believes that knowing our own actions is central to a person’s sense of self, and that it is fundamental, like the sense of touch or smell. In a later email interview (Campbell, J., Krull, E., personal communication, March 30, 2013), Campbell stated, “It’s something that one doesn’t ordinarily think about at all, you just take it for granted that you know what you did.”

But when this sense of knowing one’s own actions becomes disoriented, it can seem like a thought or action originates outside of the person. Because this sense of knowing one’s actions is so basic to the human experience, Campbell believes it can be challenging to restore. He stated, “It’s important not just for your sense of self, your sense of responsibility and freedom, but for your understanding of how the world around you works.” (Campbell, J., Krull, E., personal communication, March 30, 2013)

A person with schizophrenia can give too much meaning to certain things in their environment. This can contribute to the development of delusions, one of the hallmark symptoms of schizophrenia. The recent studies Campbell referred to explained how chemical or anatomical problems within the brain may be responsible for this symptom.

When a person gives meaning to something, it is a very personal human activity. Comprehending how many chemical reactions are behind this kind of brain activity can be difficult. Campbell said, “These breakthroughs in genetics or understanding the biology of the disease may be very important for drug therapies and so on, without giving much help to the general population getting to a psychological understanding of patients.”

However, he does think that popular media may have a bigger role helping society understand schizophrenia better. “I suspect movies like ‘A Beautiful Mind’ may actually be the big thing here,” Campbell stated in the email interview (Campbell, J., Krull, E., personal communication, March 30, 2013).

“You see this with autism, that there are now a number of novels about people with autism or autobiographies of people diagnosed with autism, that are genuinely helpful to an understanding of what it’s like to have autism.”

Campbell added, “There may be more literature than I know about, but my impression is that recently there has not been as much of this kind of thing about schizophrenia. Surely that will come and it will really matter.”

Listen to the podcast (mp3): John Campbell on Schizophrenia.


  1. Edmonds, D., & Campbell, J. (2013, January 8). John Campbell on Schizophrenia. Philosophy Bites Podcast. Podcast retrieved from http://philosophybites.com/2013/01/john-campbell-on-schizophrenia.html

Erika Krull is a licensed mental health counselor from Nebraska. She has also been a freelance writer since 2006, writing primarily about mental health and parenting topics. She currently works part-time at a psychiatric hospital, and lives with her husband and three daughters.

Posted by CJ Newton, MA, Therapists.com Editor on April 6, 2013 at 05:00 AM

Previous Post | Back to the Mental Notes Blog | Next Post

Visit BetterHelp, our Top rated online therapy provider.


This blog post is sponsored by BetterHelp, but all opinions are our own.”

“Counseing.info may receive compensation from BetterHelp or other sources if you purchase products or services through the links provided on this page.”