Quote from Sheldon Cooper, Big Bang Theory IMDB

Leonard: You convinced me. Maybe tonight we should sneak in and shampoo her carpet.
Sheldon: You don't think that crosses the line?
Leonard: Yes... For God's sake, Sheldon, do I have to... hold up a sarcasm sign every time I open my mouth?
Sheldon: You have a sarcasm sign?

Some people tend to think very literally and also over-complicate things.

This causes much misunderstanding when communicating with people, especially with the advent of texting, email and social networking, as the verbal and nonverbal cues are absent.

It sometimes causes difficulty when completing tasks, as those with this condition can misinterpret what is required of them. This can be an asset academically. A "misinterpretation" (or better put, a different interpretation) in one way, will, usually mean there is a gain in another aspect.

When someone truly does not understand something, others might think that person is joking. Others may not understand their humor, as he/she will make a joke about something, he/she sees as obvious and will be taken seriously by others.

Another way to describe this "condition" is to use the example of sudokus and cryptic crosswords. Someone might make mistakes in the easy ones, and find the more difficult ones easier to solve, looking for a more complicated solution than the one that was there and already apparent. To solve complex problems is, often, easier than the straightforward and simple.

  1. Is this a known condition?
  2. What, neurologically, may cause this in the brain?
  3. Could this be some form of "retardation"?
  4. Are there ways to improve this?
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    $\begingroup$ The behavior of the character Sheldon Cooper was frequently found to be consistent with Asperger Syndrome, although the character is not written/designed as such. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheldon_Cooper#Asperger_syndrome for further information. $\endgroup$
    – H.Muster
    Aug 7, 2013 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps this is a kind of anxiety. The individual fears some perception, and responds be being more precise than the conversational-situation warrants. I don't know prevalent definitions, and am answering in hopes it will stimulate a more-complete answer from someone. $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2013 at 13:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Skippy it seems a mod considered it a 'comment', instead of being a 'wrong/low-grade answer' $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2013 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ In my opinion, Everyone has his way of expressing Sarcasm, some express it more than others, so if you are not used to the way that person express it, sometimes you are not able to really know if he's talking with sarcasm or not. $\endgroup$ Aug 12, 2013 at 11:24
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    $\begingroup$ I have found some information regarding literal thinking, but I think the "enjoys complicated thinking" is confounding things a bit, would it be all right to focus on just the former? $\endgroup$ Aug 13, 2013 at 5:48

5 Answers 5


You seem to be describing different ways go about thinking about things in the general description of your question.

However, I'm going to think about it (ironic, ha) and your specific questions as generally in the context of the title of the topic and as how you first tend to describe it, or I interpreted it at first glance, which is over-complicating or over-analyzing things - which can be very subjective actually. I may be way off in regards to your question though.

Is this a known condition?

I've heard many times in general productivity type books the phrase "paralysis by analysis" used. No formal term I know of unless the other answers have defined/found one. I experience this when I'm not on cogsci to distract me actually, lol.

What, neurologically, may cause this in the brain?

From what I've found in my experience, and to be specific without a citation (hope noone calls me out here), I would say the GABAA-ρ subclass receptors being stimulated or not to the correct intensity. I'll just leave it at that...heh.

Could this be some form of "retardation"?

I'm not sure how you're defining retardation. Retardation, to me, is an extremely serious condition and is very obvious to anyone else - kind of like certain effects of down syndrome.

If you're defining it as an type of physiological state...like if someone was excessively drunk, then I suppose so. I would generally look at it as being defined by the meaning of the words its made up of in Latin:


From Middle English, from Anglo-Norman or Latin, from Anglo-Norman retarder, from Latin retardāre (“to retard”), from re- + tardus (“slow”)

So, "slow thinking" is how I would think it - you seem to explain a phenomenon where too much fast thinking happens at once to the point of confusion or just different ways people go about thinking about things. It seems like retardation would not be a characteristic of what you explain.

Are there ways to improve this?

I'm going to go with a practical answer here.

Writing everything down on paper helps a lot. There was actually a citation I found way back that showed changes in GABA receptor stimulation from this.

Meditation usually helps. Exercise too.

If one wants to be hardcore about it, they could "artificially" try to stimulate their GABAA-ρ subclass receptors.


Literal thinking can be associated with circumstantial thinking, and could be the result of thought 1 or communication disorders:

Circumstantial thinking
A type of thought disorder in which each of a series of thoughts seems less closely related to the original thought than the one before it at first, but the patient's thoughts eventually return to the original subject.

Circumstantial thinking can be a symptom of autism, some schizophrenia and schizotypal affects.

The assumption can be made that verbal skills are a prerequisite for effective communication. (without discussion of the mute or deaf)

Metaphorical intelligence is inversely linked to literal thinking.

that the ability to process metaphors functions as a relatively stable individual differences variable, and that those who are “less able” to process metaphors can be said to have a more “literal” thinking style. ... Frozen metaphors are those that are in common use in the language and which are often thought to be treated as single linguistic units by native speakers. Novel metaphors are ones in which ideas are combined in new or unusual ways.

Logical thinking is not linked to creative thinking. Creative thinking is linked with metaphorical thinking.

Divergent (as opposed to “convergent”) thinking is a relatively old concept, proposed by Guilford (1967). He described the convergent thinker as a person who finds it easy to deal with problems requiring one conventional correct answer, clearly obtainable from the information provided. The divergent thinker, on the other hand, is better able to solve problems requiring the generation of several equally acceptable answers where the emphasis is on the quantity, variety and originality of responses. Those who engage more readily in divergent thinking are more likely to display metaphoric intelligence. 2

Creative thinking (divergent thinking) and critical thinking (convergent thinking) are two powerful aspects of effective thinking 3

A photographic or eidetic memory, is often associated with high intelligence or savant intelligence. There is evidence that suggests that the creation of photographic or eidetic memories is impaired by concurrent verbalisation. An interesting point that the mental processes involving this talent are not only independent from verbal skills, but, potentially, hindered by such. One thing it does reveal, is that verbal skills are not linked to this type of "genius".

Research has shown that if a person verbalizes during the time he or she is scanning the original picture, this interferes with eidetic image formation.

The same features of simultaneous brilliance with impaired social skills and varying cognitive impairments, are observed with "savants". 4

I think a better question would be, what processes cause literal thinkers, who may be highly intelligent in some ways; to frequently over complicate or misinterpret, seemingly, simple concepts?

Literal and over complicated thinking can be linked with a logical thinker, who lacks creative thought skills. Some of the complications could be the result of interpreting problems literally and missing metaphorical meanings.

1. The Confusing Area of Disturbed Thinking Journal of Personality Assessment
Volume 40, Issue 5, 1976 Preview Access options DOI:10.1207/s15327752jpa4005_5 Bert Loro
2. Dr. Jeannette Littlemore
English for International Students Unit
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT
3. Critical Thinking and the Art of Learning and Living
John F. Kennedy
4. Is there such a thing as a photographic memory? And if so, can it be learned?
Alan Searleman,
Professor of psychology
St. Lawrence University


Is there a psychological condition which promotes literal and overly complicated thinking?

Yes, I think so... Its called intelligence.

Is this a known condition?

You want a literal answer? Then "Yes"

What, neurologically, may cause this in the brain?

Something amiss in the corpus callosum

Are there ways to improve this?

If you can teach an engineer to write original music, then maybe so.


This question reminds me of the "Professional Test" where the first question is: How do you put a giraffe into a refrigerator?

The claim at the end of the test is: "according to the statistics of Andersen Consulting Worldwide, around 90% of the professionals failed the exam. (But most preschoolers got it correct which disproves the theory that most "professionals" have the brains of a four year old :)". Hence the popularity of this test.

I first saw this test over 10yrs ago and have been trying not to overcomplicate things ever since, to little avail however. About 7yrs ago I moved into an apartment and wanted to move the landline phone closer to my pc. So I'm planning how to run the wire up and down walls and across the floor when my friend said "Why don't you buy a $10 cordless phone from walmart and put it where ever you want? Sheesh!". You know I couldn't make this up! No seriously, I really couldn't make this up. I'm way too logical and literal to be that creative. So, am I stupid? Retarded? Autistic? Nah, I'm just a guy. A straight guy and I'm right-handed.

Want to guess the sex of the friend who suggested the cordless phone? Oh and she is straight too.

If you need someone to point out the obvious, find a straight gal or gay man.

Now I'm not saying that a condition can't be made of behavior more extreme than is displayed by your typical guy, and given a name like autism or something else, but it seems to me to be mainly varying degrees of communication between areas of the brain, coupled with overall intelligence, that determine how complicated or simplistic a solution will be.

We all have our areas where we excel. Some folks do well in the arts. My excellence happens to be overcomplicating things and doing extremely well with complicated, boring, mundane problems that would send any artsy person straight to the rubber room. Its ironic how I simplified this one, however. So maybe that's evidence the condition can be improved. ;) Now I'm going to go write a symphony... just as soon as I finish designing this bridge.


In case you missed it, larger corpus callosum is associated with left-handed people, musicians, artists, gay men, and straight women. Tendencies to miss simple solutions and to overcomplicate are associated with right-handed, logical, and engineering types (the antithesis of lefties, musicians, and most engineers are men, etc). Therefore, smaller corpus callosum is associated with overcomplication. That seems simple enough.

Note: Some have a tendency to skim over hyperlinks, I do it too, however these hyperlinks are informative and/or very funny and are essential to understanding my claim.

Another note: Some research has indicated that its not the size of the corpus callosum that matters, just how "connected" it is. For the sake of simplicity in my answer, I used the words "large" and "small".

  • $\begingroup$ I (male) was great at divergent and artistic things, former wife was best at convergent things. It was fine if we each had largely separate areas of responsibility, but when we had to consider and agree, it didn't go well. I might get overwhelmed and give up, or she might not wish to consider options... etc. You have to consider "failure modes" like these. People have a back-up personality style, which tends to be a more pronounced form of "normal" for them, and a secondary back-up style where they quit or lash out if they are driven too hard. Gentle people can become very aggressive. $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    Jan 26, 2016 at 13:28

To the best of my knowledge this is due to neuroplasticity, and the conditioning of the brain. This means that somethings might be considered by some over-complicated which are actually seen as simple by others, such as cryptic crosswords.

Something that do don't address is complicated vs complexity:

Complex is used to refer to the level of components in a system. If a problem is complex, it means that it has many components. Complexity does not evoke difficulty.

On the other hand, complicated refers to a high level of difficulty. If a problem is complicated, there might be or might not be many parts but it will certainly take a lot of hard work to solve.

Source: What is the difference between “complicated” and “complex”?

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    $\begingroup$ When organizing your clothes are you going for a totally ordered set or a partially ordered set? ;) $\endgroup$ Aug 15, 2013 at 1:13
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    $\begingroup$ "Totally Ordered" is an undecidable proposition. That is: there is no upper bound on "organization", which I think contributes to the problem of over-complicating things. There is no natural stopping point, unless you run out of time or energy and must decide. In nature, such people would simply be eaten by a bear and this problem would not arise. $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    Jan 26, 2016 at 13:23

In at least one sense, your two conditions can be seen as contradictory: literal thinking is intrinsically empirical in nature, and is not overly complicated, at least from an analytic perspective.

There's a famous story that illustrates this, involving the pioneering Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander Luria:

The uncompromising empiricism of traditional indigenous people may explain why they tend to be suspicious of abstract thinking. When the Russian psychologist Alexander Luria (1902–77) tried to test the reasoning skills of a nomadic people in central Asia, they refused to cooperate. For example, Luria gave one man the following information: ‘All bears in the North are white, and a friend who lives in the North has sent me a letter saying that he had seen a bear.’ He then asked the man what the colour of the bear was. The answer may be obvious to us, but the man replied: ‘How should I know? Ask your friend who saw the bear.’ Another man explained, ‘We always speak only of what we see; we don’t talk about what we haven't seen.’ ¹

As an aside, this development of increasing abstraction in thinking — away from the literal — as the technology and information densities of our societies have grown is one of the plausible explanations for the Flynn Effect (see this Guardian article)

¹ Not the best of sources, but it’s an old and well-known story.


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