Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Pop Psych Project: The Strange Case of Word Salad

I asked you for words on Twitter yesterday.
This is what you came up with.
If you've ever had a moment where a word is on the tip of your tongue but you cannot say it, you have experienced a form of aphasia. Those brief moments can be frustrating--you are staring at the cup, you know what the cup is, you want someone to pass you the cup. But, you cannot get the word cup to come out of your mouth. Eventually, you point, grunt, throw something at your kid, and the cup gets passed to you.

Now, imagine having a permanent condition that keeps you from being able to fully express yourself, despite knowing exactly what you want. That, in a nutshell, is aphasia.

There are several different types of aphasia, and most of them are caused by damage to the particular regions of the brain that control speech. The left frontotemporal regions of the brain control both receptive and expressive speech. The receptive speech area allows you to understand verbal communication, and the expressive speech area helps you speak.

Broca's Area helps you speak. Wernicke's
Area helps you understand speech.

If you have Expressive Aphasia, or Broca's Aphasia, you have problems speaking. You have coherent thoughts in your head, but you cannot get them out. It is frustrating for many people--you stare blankly and have a frustrated look on your face. People around you are irritated. You want to express yourself, but you can't.

Receptive aphasia, or Wernicke's Aphasia, is different. If you have this particular problem, you can't understand what people are saying. You also can't understand written language. You hear it (or read it), but it just doesn't make sense.

One fascinating aspect of receptive aphasia is that you also cannot understand yourself. But, you are able to speak. Words come out, but they don't mean anything. This is sometimes referred to as Fluent Aphasia. It is also called Word Salad.

Yesterday, I asked people to submit random words to me on Twitter. I got 53 responses (one of which was an expletive, which I skipped). I used the list to come up with a string of nonsensical sentences to demonstrate the concept of Word Salad. Here is the result:

Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above.

Word Salad is rare, and when it is caused by damage to Wernicke's Area, it can be permanent. But, it can sometimes be temporarily caused by a mental illness such as Schizophrenia or another brain disorder. You may have also witnessed something similar to fluent aphasia if you have ever spent time around someone who is incredibly drunk or high. 

Here is video of an unfortunate news reporter who has a seizure on live television, which causes her to experience brief, fluent aphasia (notice she is able to speak with proper intonation--she just stops making sense. You can also see the distress on her face as she starts to realize something is going terribly wrong):

Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above.

An interesting side note on aphasia--it gets worse with stress. When you are anxious, the speech regions in your brain do not work all that well, and it can get you tongue-tied. Trying to force the words out does not work. Instead, it typically makes it worse.

The best thing to do when you are suffering from temporary, stress-induced aphasia is to pause and take a deep breath. Don't force the words out. Relax and know that in a few seconds, your brain (and mouth) will be working again.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


I had nominal aphasia with a severe B12 deficiency. If you find yourself calling the TV the "square light box with morning people on it", maybe have your B12 and folate checked!

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I have a brain injury and have randomly and occasionally experienced dysphasia especially when trying to multitasking but lately it has been getting worse. Should I be worried? I HAVE been stressed lately and I think it's connected but it's scaring me.

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