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What Are Delusions of Reference?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

Delusions of reference represent a common symptom in people diagnosed with schizophrenia. Patients exhibiting this symptom might believe neutral comments carry personal messages directed at them, which often come in negative forms. These communications might come from television, radio, or pedestrians on the street. Messages might also come from objects or events with no basis in reality. In addition to schizophrenia, symptoms might occur in patients with bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and dementia.

People experiencing delusions of reference absolutely believe these messages are real, which might include non-verbal cues coming from others or actual words. They might believe an event’s sole purpose centers specifically on disclosing some missive to them. If the delusion involves an object, schizophrenics might believe it was placed there purposely to send them personal information, despite contrary evidence.

Delusions can be linked to mood or considered neutral. A schizophrenic suffering depression might interpret delusions of reference with a sense of doom. If the patient suffers a manic episode, the communication received might provoke a sense of invincibility. When in a neutral state, the patient might think thoughts are being put into his or her head.

One study found increased neural activity in several parts of the brain when delusions of reference occurred. Researchers asked personal questions intended to produce delusions and measured brain activity through magnetic resonance imaging. Results of the research indicated brain activity increased when patients strongly believed their delusions. Generic, impersonal questions failed to provoke the same responses.

Delusions might focus on various themes, with delusions of persecution defining the most common symptom linked to schizophrenia. These patients believe someone wants to harm them when no proof exists. They might think they are being followed or spied upon as part of a conspiracy. Both delusions of persecution and delusions of reference fall into the non-bizarre category of symptoms, defined as probably not true, but possible.

Bizarre delusions might include delusions of control where the patient believes outside influences control his or her thoughts or actions. The patient might think thoughts can be heard and manipulated by real or imaginary people, aliens, or forces. Bizarre delusions cannot possibly occur or be proven scientifically.

Other common delusions linked to mental disorders include delusions of guilt and delusions of grandeur. A schizophrenic might believe he or she is responsible for a negative event when the patient had nothing to do with it. He or she might feel the need for punishment for imaginary sins. Delusions of grandeur typically give the patient a sense of remarkable power or talent without any proof.

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Discussion Comments
By anon994394 — On Feb 05, 2016

@literally45, do you remember what the movie was called?

By fBoyle — On Apr 19, 2014

@ddljohn-- I'm not an expert so I'm not sure but I think that paranoia can be a sign of delusions of reference.

Those suffering from delusions have false beliefs and delusions of reference makes an individual suspect people and events about their meanings. They reach unreasonable conclusions about what they are seeing and hearing.

If someone believes that everyone has ulterior motives and nothing is as it seems, then of course, that would lead to some paranoia. I think that delusions, paranoia and hallucinations are often seen together in individuals with schizophrenia.

By ddljohn — On Apr 19, 2014

Delusions of reference sound just like paranoia. Don't paranoid individuals imagine that there are secret messages in everything or that people are targeting them or judging them?

By literally45 — On Apr 18, 2014

I saw a film about delusions of guilt recently. The main character lived in guilt for killing his older brother as a child. But his older brother had died by accident while bullying him; he had slipped and fell into a well.

As a turn of irony, the film later revealed that there was no older brother. The older brother was a hallucination. So this character, who was suffering from schizophrenia, had guilty delusions about the death of someone who did not exist.

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