What is Outline Tracing Disorder?

This is an odd condition in which you are constantly drawing outlines of visible shapes with your eyes.

You may be sitting there at home, perfectly at ease, thinking about something or other, only to find that all the while you have been repeatedly tracing the outline of something, perhaps the lines of the wall around the windows, or the entire area of the ceiling. Sometimes the shapes you draw are so big that you move your head rather than your eyes.

That’s it. ‘Disorder’ may be the wrong word – it may be entirely benign. I am curious about this condition because I have been doing it for many years, probably all my life, certainly since I was at school 30 years ago. The action is so frequent and automatic that usually I am not aware I am doing it. In recent years I have become more self-aware and, on consciously checking, find that yes, indeed I have been drawing these outlines all the while, and, strangely, find that I have a clear memory of doing it as if I was perfectly conscious of the action at the time.

This picture shows some typical outlines I might trace in a room.


Walls seem to obsess me particularly, especially the outline that things make against the wall, but that may be because I am most often indoors. Outside, it obviously happens less because shapes are constantly changing, but it still happens at every opportunity. My brain immediately seeks out and latches onto the shapes of things against surfaces and starts tracing them as if it is the key to some kind of discovery. I have a distinct preference for certain types of shape – they have to be irregular and ‘interesting’. I would not be interested in tracing the simple rectangular outline of the television, for instance.

I am the first to admit this is not entirely normal though I am in two minds whether it is pathological. It may well aid concentration – akin to jiggling the leg or pacing up and down. On the other hand, it is mildly annoying to catch myself doing it constantly, and the activity must be taking up cognitive resources (as it were a portion of computer memory), that may impede concentration on other tasks, even significantly. I don’t know.

There is no discernible anxiety connected with this. It doesn’t seems to happen more in tense situations than in others, but all the time, with any static scene and in the most relaxed environments. At the very least, it seems to indicate an over-alert mind, and may go hand in hand with a number of other obsessive-compulsive disorders, such as compulsive counting or restless leg syndrome, though I think (thankfully) it is much less intrusive than those. Perhaps I am the only person in the world afflicted by this outline tracing condition, but somehow I suspect I am not alone.

One thing I’m not interested in is talking to a doctor about this. I have never yet met a doctor who, when it comes to subtle areas like phobias and allergies, have much of a clue and I’ve met plenty who have been downright harmful with their ill-informed speculation. Even a specialist in OCDs, I suspect, will have little clue how to deal with this, if the specialist advice I have already come across is anything to go by. So please spare me that suggestion.

I have set up this website and coined the phrase Outline Tracing Disorder because I can see no mention of it in the medical literature and hardly any mention of it on the internet. The only reference I have come across is here: Mentalhealth.net where a few individuals mention tracing in combination with compulsive counting.

The aim is to pool available experience on outline tracing. It would be interesting to try to establish, among other things:

  • Whether the action is disruptive to normal everyday activity
  • Whether the action has any hidden (constructive?) psychological purpose
  • Whether it is linked to other conditions (such as headaches or anxiety attacks or the inability to concentrate) which together form a kind of syndrome
  • Whether there is anything can be done about it (I suspect not, beyond a lobotomy)

First though, is there anyone out there who recognises this condition? It would be interesting to hear from you. Just click on replies link below and there is a ‘Leave a reply’ box at the foot of that page.

I wish I could make this WordPress theme automatically show all the replies in full at the foot of the page, but haven’t yet mastered the technicalities of this. In the meantime, a list of the 10 latest comments is below, or you can click on the “replies” link (at the bottom) or the speech bubble (near the top) to see them all.

Update May 28th 2015:

It’s over two years since I set up this tentative web page on “outline tracing”. Since then 5800 people have visited the site and nearly 150 people have left a message – and I must say, everyone who replied came across as good-natured, intelligent, and articulate.

I have let the site run more or less unattended since then but given all those replies, now might be a good time to try to take our understanding of this issue a little further.

To try and contribute a little more to this, I have studied all of the replies and will try to summarise what we have learned so far.

  • Clearly this is not as rare as I thought – it may be reasonably common, assuming all of the thousands of visitors to this site came here in recognition of this condition.
  • This is a long-term condition with many people reporting it from childhood through to old age, and with some parents observing it in quite young children.
  • Many people keep it hidden, even from their partners.
  • The consensus is that the habit is largely subconscious, fairly uncontrollable, and quite frustrating.
  • Despite it being quite annoying, no one has said this condition in itself has significantly hampered their life. Clearly some very successful people have coped with it perfectly well.
  • Tracing is done by different people in different ways: using eyes, tongue, toes, teeth, frequently involving head movements or even whole body movements, with a wide range of personal preference regarding shapes or items that tend to be traced, and in tracing techniques, such as direction, systems, and strategies.
  • Tracers tend to be thinkers with active minds, often artistic or creative, and often perfectionists.
  • The correlation with other psychological conditions such as other OCDs (especially counting), depression, and anxiety would seem to be significant. Quite a number of people also reported having frequent headaches.
  • Tracing seems to be done mostly in sedentary situations such as watching television or driving.
  • It is obscure in that no one understands why they do it, and were frustrated by their complete inability to stop.
  • Some people (no doubt the severe cases) assume that it interferes with their ability to concentrate. Other people consider it quite harmless – even a relaxing recreation.
  • Some therapists are familiar with the condition and consider it an OCD.
  • A few people have found that they do it more often as they get older.

It’s surely fair to say we have by now established this as bona fide condition and no doubt it would be useful to have some more in-depth discussion. As WordPress is not really good for that, I have set up a discussion forum at:


Feel free to drop by there and contribute to the debate – the more the merrier.

I will leave this site up as it is now regularly attracting visitors via Google. Comments are still welcome here, but I hope everyone, having read this, will head over to the forum.