Two doctor/brothers, Joel and Ian Gold, have identified symptoms of a mental
illness unique to our times: the Truman Show delusion, named for the 1998 movie
that starred Jim Carrey as a suburbanite whose movements were filmed 24/7 and
broadcast to the world. The two say a handful of individuals are convinced they
are stars of an imaginary reality show.
Though limited, their findings are creating a buzz in the media and the
psychiatric community: Is it possible that reality TV is shaping delusions?
In an interview with WebMD, Joel Gold says, “The Truman Show delusion
encompasses a patient’s entire life. They believe their family, friends, and
co-workers are all reading from scripts and their home, workplace, and hospital
are all sets. They believe they are being filmed for the whole world to
Joel Gold, who is on the psychiatric faculty of New York’s Bellevue Hospital
and serves as a clinical assistant professional of psychiatry at New York
University's School of Medicine, first began to see the symptoms dubbed Truman
Show delusion in 2002 with patients at Bellevue Hospital. He initially treated
five white male patients with middle-class upbringing and education, all who
likened themselves to actors on reality TV shows. Three specifically referenced
the movie TheTruman Show, giving rise to the disorder’s name.
“It’s important to state that Truman Show delusion is a symptom of
psychosis,” Joel Gold says. “People who choose to be the center of attention,
have concerns about social standing, or who may fear being in public eye or
seek it out, may be more drawn to identify with this delusion. I don’t think
people are making it up or choosing it.”
Both Golds are careful to say that the Truman Show delusion is not a new
diagnosis, but rather, as Ian Gold says, “a variance on known persecutory and
grandiose delusions.” Ian Gold, PhD, holds a Canada Research Chair in
philosophy and psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal.
Although some psychologists scoff at the notion that cultural Zeitgeist can
shape delusions, the phenomenon has precedence.
Joseph Weiner, MD, PhD, chief of consultation psychiatry at North Shore
University Hospital/Manhasset and associate professor of clinical psychiatry
and medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, weighed in via email about
what he saw during his psychiatry residency.
“I recall two patients in one week who stated that they were Elizabeth
Taylor; in the 1940s, psychotic patients would express delusions about their
brains being controlled by radio waves; now delusional patients commonly
complain about implanted computer chips,” Weiner says. “Because reality shows
are so visible, it is an area that a patient can easily incorporate into a
delusional system. Such a person would believe they are constantly being
videotaped, watched, and commented upon by a large TV audience.”