Monty Python’s fluent aphasia

Thripshaw’s Disease was a fictional medical condition shown in a sketch from the classic comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus that bears a remarkably similarity to fluent aphasia, a speech impairment that can occur after brain injury.

Mind Hacks reader Patricio sent in this fascinating observation, and we can see from the sketch that the man can understand what is said to him (intact comprehension), but produces fluent but jumbled sentences.

Speech problems after (usually left-sided) brain injury are called aphasia and the concept reflects the various ways speech can be impaired.

Sometimes aphasia affects speech production, so people can hardly seem to get a word out, while other people can produce fluent speech although it can be full of misplaced words, odd word order or nonwords. Often in fluent aphasia, people can also have difficulties in understanding what is said, but it’s not always the case.

Of course, there can be a mix of all sorts of problems, but the type of speech disorder depicted in the Monty Python sketch is called paragrammaticism and was tackled by a classic study by Butterworth and Howard.

Most interestingly, the researchers found that these errors are identical to the grammatical errors people without brain injury tend to make on a day-to-day basis, but just happen much more frequently.

Here’s one of the examples from the study:

My father, he is the biggest envelope ever worked in Ipswich. He strikes every competition and constitution that’s going. He’s got everybody situated and they’ve got to talk to him.

And there’s also a lovely example from this book:

I’ll tell you, not like before, I must say that once the beginning happened in the beginning, as I arrived and naturally it was, of course, quite decisive.

The gentleman in Monty Python sketch also shows paraphasias (saying the wrong word where you intended to say another) and neologisms (creating instant nonsense words).

Interestingly, the interviewer on the TV chat show slightly later in the sketch shows a classic transcortical motor aphasia – a slow halting speech with inappropriate word stress – typically caused by damage to areas of the mid part of the left frontal lobe.

This character is played by Graham Chapman who studied medicine and qualified as a doctor although apparently never practiced owing to the success of Monty Python.

I wonder if he was inspired by some of the usual speech patterns of aphasia, or whether this was just an interesting coincidence.

Link to video of Monty Python sketch (thanks Patricio!).
Link to Butterworth and Howard study.
Link to PubMed entry for study.

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