Thought disorder  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

In psychiatry, thought disorder or formal thought disorder is a term used to describe a pattern of disordered language use that is presumed to reflect disordered thinking. It is usually considered a symptom of psychotic mental illness, although it occasionally appears in other conditions. For example, pressured speech and flight of ideas may be present in Mania. Clanging or echolalia may be present in Tourette's Syndrome.

It describes a persistent underlying disturbance to conscious thought and is classified largely by its effects on speech and writing. Affected persons may show pressure of speech (speaking incessantly and quickly), derailment or flight of ideas (switching topic mid-sentence inappropriately), thought blocking, rhyming, punning, or 'word salad' when individual words may be intact but speech is incoherent.

Eugen Bleuler, who named schizophrenia, held that its defining characteristic was a disorder of the thinking process. However, although the delusions and hallucinations of psychosis could also be considered as disorders of thought, the term formal thought disorder applies specifically to the presumed disruption in the flow of conscious verbal thought that is inferred from spoken language. This is typically what is referred to when the strictly less accurate, more commonly used but abbreviated term, 'thought disorder', is used.

Possible signs and symptoms of thought disorder

Thought is revealed through speech. Thus, observation of patterns of thought naturally involves close observation of the speech of the individual being considered. Although it is normal to exhibit some of the following during times of extreme stress(e.g. a cataclysmic event or the middle of a war) it is the degree, frequency, and the resulting functional impairment that leads to the conclusion that the person being observed has a thought disorder.

  • Blocking - Interruption of train of speech before completion. e.g. "Am I early?", "No, you're just about on-" This is commonly seen when a joke is being told and the speaker forgets the punchline. At an extreme degree, after blocking occurs, the speaker does not recall the topic he or she was discussing. True blocking is a common sign of schizophrenia.
  • Circumferential speech - Speech that is very delayed at reaching its goal. Speaking about many concepts related to the point of the conversation before eventually returning to the point and concluding the thought. Excessive long-windedness. e.g. "What is your name?" "Well, sometimes when people ask me that I have to think about whether or not I will answer because some people think it's an odd name even though I don't really because my mom gave it to me and I think my dad helped but it's as good a name as any in my opinion but yeah it's Tom."
  • Clanging - Sounds, rather than meaningful relationships, appear to govern words or topics. Excessive rhyming. e.g. "I'm not trying to make noise. I'm trying to make sense. If you can't make sense out of nonsense, well, have fun." "I heard the bell. Well, hell, I heard the bell."
  • Derailment (also Loose Association and Knight's Move thinking) - Ideas slip off the topic's track on to another which is obliquely related or unrelated. e.g. "The next day when I'd be going out you know, I took control, like uh, I put bleach on my hair in California."
  • Distractible speech - During mid speech, the subject is changed in response to a stimulus. e.g. "Then I left San Francisco and moved to... where did you get that tie?"
  • Echolalia - Echoing of one's or other people's speech that may only be committed once, or may be continuous in repetition. This may involve repeating only the last few words or last word of the examiner's sentences. This can be a symptom of Tourette's Syndrome. e.g. "What would you like for dinner?", "That's a good question. That's a good question. That's a good question. That's a good question."
  • Evasive Interaction - Attempts to annunciate ideas and/or feelings about another individual comes out as evasive or in a diluted form, e.g.: "I... er ah... you are uh... I think you have... uh-- acceptable erm... uh... hair."Template:Citation needed
  • Flight of Ideas - A sequence of loose associations or extreme tangentiality where the speaker goes quickly from one idea to another seemingly unrelated idea. To the listener, the ideas seem unrelated and do not seem to repeat. Often pressured speech is also present. e.g. "My hand is five cigars. I've been to Havana. She rose out of the water, bikini. Mushrooms clouds, Wow. You're God."
  • Illogicality - Conclusions are reached that do not follow logically (non-sequiturs or faulty inferences). e.g. "Do you think this will fit in the box?" draws a reply like "Well duh; it's brown isn't it?"
  • Incoherence (word salad) - Speech that is unintelligible because, though the individual words are real words, the manner in which they are strung together results in incoherent gibberish, e.g. the question "Why do people comb their hair?" elicits a response like "Because it makes a twirl in life, my box is broken help me blue elephant. Isn't lettuce brave? I like electrons. Hello, beautiful."
  • Loss of goal - Failure to show a train of thought to a natural conclusion. e.g. "Why does my computer keep crashing?", "Well, you live in a stucco house, so the pair of scissors needs to be in another drawer."
  • Neologisms - New word formations. These may also involve elisions of two words that are similar in meaning or in sound. e.g. "I got so angry I picked up a dish and threw it at the geshinker."
  • Perseveration - Persistent repetition of words or ideas. e.g. "It's great to be here in Nevada, Nevada, Nevada, Nevada, Nevada." This may also involve repeatedly giving the same answer to different questions. e.g. "Is your name Mary? Yes. Are you in the hospital? Yes. Are you a table? Yes."
  • Phonemic paraphasia - Mispronunciation; syllables out of sequence. e.g. "I slipped on the lice and broke my arm."
  • Pressure of speech - An increase in the amount of spontaneous speech compared to what is considered customary. This may also include an increase in the rate of speech. Alternatively it may be difficult to interrupt the speaker; the speaker may continue speaking even when a direct question is asked.
  • Self-reference - Patient repeatedly and inappropriately refers back to self. e.g. "What's the time?", "It's 7 o'clock. That's my problem."
  • Semantic paraphasia - Substitution of inappropriate word. e.g. "I slipped on the coat, on the ice I mean, and broke my book."
  • Stilted speech - Speech excessively stilted and formal. e.g. "The attorney comported himself indecorously."
  • Tangentiality - Replying to questions in an oblique, tangential or irrelevant manner. e.g.:
Q: "What city are you from?"
A: "Well, that's a hard question. I'm from Iowa. I really don't know where my relatives came from, so I don't know if I'm Irish or French."
  • Word approximations - Old words used in a new and unconventional way. e.g. "His boss was a seeover."


The concept of thought disorder has been criticized as being based on circular or incoherent definitions. For example, thought disorder is inferred from disordered speech, however it is assumed that disordered speech arises because of disordered thought. Similarly the definition of 'Incoherence' (word salad) is that speech is incoherent.

Furthermore, although thought disorder is typically associated with psychosis, similar phenomena can appear in different disorders, potentially leading to misdiagnosis—for example, in the case of incomplete yet potentially fruitful thought processes.

It has been suggested that individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) display language disturbances like those found in schizophrenia. A 2008 study found that children and adolescents with ASD showed significantly more illogical thinking and loose associations than controls. The illogical thinking was related to cognitive functioning and executive control; the loose associations were related to communication symptoms and to parent reports of stress and anxiety.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Thought disorder" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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