Montreal psychiatrists Joel and Ian Gold have coined ‘the Truman Show Delusion,’ where patients claim that the world around them is an elaborate production.
By Craig Offman
Joel and Ian Gold, brothers and psychiatrists from Montreal, believe they have discovered a signature mental illness of the YouTube era: patients who claim they are subjects of their own reality TV shows.
They have named the malady the “Truman Show Delusion” and though they are in the process of putting together a medical paper on the topic, their discovery is already are causing a stir.
While traditionalists insist that this delusion offers nothing new – it is no different from say, a deranged man who believes that the CIA has planted a microchip in his tooth – the Gold brothers argue otherwise.
“It’s really a question of the extent of the delusion,” said Joel Gold, 39, who has been on staff at New York’s Bellevue Hospital Center for eight years. “The delusions we typically treat are narrow: There is Capgras Delusion, where someone will think his family has been replaced by doubles. Or the Fregoli Delusion, where someone believes that one person is persecuting him: a doctor, mailman, butcher. the Truman Show Delusion, though, involves the entire world.”
He also says that The Truman Show had an impact on patients that other films did not, no matter how powerful they were. “I never heard people say, ‘The Godfather, that’s my life.’ ”
While Dr. Gold says they could have easily called their new disorder the EdTV Delusion or the Matrix Delusion – both films that refer to an unreal existence – three of the five patients he treated at the storied mental health hospital directly likened their plight to The Truman Show, the 1998 film which depicts Truman Burbank, an affable suburbanite who slowly becomes aware that his every movement is broadcast 24/7 to voyeuristic viewers around the world.
The five patients Dr. Gold treated were white men between the ages of 25 and 34, the majority of whom held university degrees.
“I realized that I was and am the centre, the focus of attention by millions and millions of people,” explained one patient, an army veteran who came from an upper middle-class upbringing. “My family and everyone I knew were and are actors in a script, a charade whose entire purpose is to make me the focus of the world’s attention.”
The patient added that he planned to climb to the top of the Statue of Liberty, and if his true love were waiting for him, the puppeteer strings would be cut. If she failed to show up, he would jump to his death.
Another patient even had first-hand experience with reality TV. A 25-year-old New Englander with a bachelor’s degree in film and communication studies, he worked as intern on a program where, he complained, cameras were secretly tracking him.
Thinking that he was also being filmed while at a polling station on Election Day in 2004, he felt that it was his duty to protest against the Bush administration by shouting that the President was “Judas.” The outburst led to his admission to the Bellevue Center.
“Typically, the Truman Show Delusion is a combination of paranoia, grandiosity and ideas of reference, which means that patients believe they are receiving signals specifically meant for them from a newscast or something like that.” said Dr. Gold, adding that since he started presenting these cases at conferences two years ago, colleagues have informed him of six more examples.
Ian Gold, who holds a Canada Research Chair in philosophy and psychiatry at McGill University, added that there are unprecedented cultural triggers that might explain the phenomenon: the pressure of living in a large, connected community can bring out the unstable side of more vulnerable people.
“The wish for fame is a form of grandiosity, and the fear of threats such as surveillance can bring about paranoia,” said the Montreal-based Dr. Gold, 46, who specializes in delusion. “New media is opening up vast social spaces that might be interacting with psychological processes.”
The elder Dr. Gold said that despite all the modern technology of brain imaging, little is known about delusions, which are a common trait of schizophrenia. Most experts say there is no set criterion for a delusion beyond defining it as fixed false belief.
Austrian Thomas Stompe, a leading psychiatrist with a traditional bent, believes that there are seven kinds of delusions, period.
“A number of recent case reports published during the last 20 years described a quick inclusion of new technologies and cultural innovations into schizophrenic delusions which led many of the authors to the conclusion that the ‘Zeitgeist’ is creating new delusional contents,” warns Dr. Stompe, the lead author of a paper entitled “Old Wine in New Bottles? Stability and Plasticity of the Contents of Schizophrenic Delusions.”
Published five years ago in the journal Psychopathy, the abstract concludes that there are only a few eternal themes of “extraordinary anthropological importance”: persecution, grandiosity, guilt, religion, hypochondria, jealousy, and love.
Those other Zeitgeist developments, presumably the Truman Show Delusion among them, belong in subcategories according to this categorization.
When reached at his office in Vienna, Dr. Stompe said he had heard the buzz about the findings of the brothers Gold, but did not see anything new in them.
“I have seen someone who thinks they are part of the Matrix,” he said. “This is very near. The patient also told me that the world had changed, that there was an unreal quality in the world.”
Despite that first-hand experience and the talk about the Golds’ theory, Dr. Stompe is unmoved, asserting the unshakeable truths of his field. “The major topics are always the same.”