Altered states: How reality caught up with paranoid delusions

“Schizophrenics used to see demons and spirits. Now they talk about actors and hidden cameras – and make a lot of sense.”

Clinical psychiatry papers rarely make much of a splash in the wider media, but it seems appropriate that a paper entitled ‘The Truman Show Delusion: Psychosis in the Global Village’, published in the May 2012 issue of Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, should have caused a global sensation. Its authors, the brothers Joel and Ian Gold, presented a striking series of cases in which individuals had become convinced that they were secretly being filmed for a reality TV show.

In one case, a delusional man traveled to New York, demanded to meet the director of his show, and wanted to know whether the 9/11 attacks were real or part of the premise of his story. In another instance, a deluded journalist was convinced she’d win a prize for getting to the bottom of the conspiracy around her.

In another example, a woman who actually worked on a reality show in real life became convinced that she was the star of the program and her colleagues were engaged in an elaborate conspiracy pretending to make a reality show about someone else while actually filming her.

A student of Sigmund Freud first described these kinds of delusions a century ago. In previous periods, paranoid schizophrenics were deluded about God, spirits, and djinni. Then science and technology took over the world, and people had delusions about being controlled by invisible magnetic rays and machines operated using the crude electronics of the day.

Beginning in the 50s, pop culture became fascinated by stories about mental illness, delusions, and mind control, including The Manchurian Candidate. Later, the novels of Philip K. Dick, and films like Bladerunner and Total Recall based on those novels, made those kinds of delusions blockbuster hits. The Matrix was a paranoid delusion in full bloom.

Reality has caught up with delusion. Paranoid schizophrenics used to be deluded about invisible rays saturating the environment and controlling fantastic machines. Now, those rays and machines exist. I’m typing on one such machine right now, and my words will be conveyed to you over invisible rays.

This is a terrific article, but as I was reading I was surprised to see one delusion-turned-reality missing. It’s a huge one, too; it’s saturated headlines and online discussion for almost a year. But the date of the article explained the hole. The article appeared in August 2013, and was probably completed months before that, before the Edward Snowden leaks. Paranoid schizophrenics used to believe government agents were wiretapping their phones, and now we know that’s right.

The reality show

Years ago I read an essay by a recovered paranoid schizophrenic who mourned her old life. As a mentally healthy person, if she had lunch with a friend in a cafe, she was just having lunch with a friend in a cafe. When she was delusional, she’d be desperately trying to keep up a pretense of normal behavior while constantly scanning the restaurant for enemy agents pursing her. Her deluded life was much more exciting than reality.

3 Replies to “Altered states: How reality caught up with paranoid delusions”

  1. Movies like the Truman Show and The Matrix really do screw with your mind though. Even perfectly (mentally) healthy people may get a little paranoid after watching something like that. It’s all about implanting an idea your mind really. For sane people it remains that: just an interesting idea. For not so sane people it can become an obsession

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