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The Truman Show Delusion: Real or Imagined?

A few delusional people are convinced they are stars of an imaginary reality show, but doctors disagree on whether it's only an act.

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Among the skeptics are Jill P. Weber, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Vienna, Va. “The idea that more people are becoming delusional due to reality TV or The Truman Show phenomenon is tenuous, as it is likely that these people would have become psychotic with or without these influences, but the content of the delusion would be different. If we lived in a world of no TV, and entertainment was in the form of tribal dance, someone who is psychotic may begin to believe that the dance is only for them.”

Still, other experts acknowledge the possibility.

Simon Rego, PsyD, associate director of psychology training at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center, is intrigued by the notion but wants to see if more patients emerge in other cities and countries over time.

“We know that although core themes are quite stable, shifts take place,” he says. “For example, after 9/11, we saw a lot of delusional content about terrorists. With the exponential growth of reality TV and the use of personal web cams and Facebook, some people may be susceptible to developing Truman Show delusion. The danger is self-labeling -- that we are creating a phenomenon -- not discovering one. There’s a difference.”

Carole Lieberman, MD, a Beverly Hills-based media psychiatrist, says, “There is no question that reality TV is dangerous to our nation’s psyche. The Truman Show delusion has not been incorporated into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, and it is unlikely that it will be anytime soon. However, this doesn’t necessarily negate the clinical experiences of the Drs. Gold.”

Ian Gold says that although TheTruman Show film was played as for laughs, “there was an undercurrent of horror that was really powerful, that captures something of what this artificial environment would be like. Imagine if nobody was authentic [in your life], if every encounter you had was watched and you were utterly alone. The emails I have received since the story broke have brought home to me how terrifying this experience is.”

His brother concurs with the seriousness of the subject matter. Joel Gold has been bothered by some bloggers who have dismissed the Truman Show delusion as frivolous.

“This is a serious mental illness, it’s not silly or a form of narcissism. It’s a severe and persisting mental illness and we don’t want to make light of it. If you think the entire world is fraudulent, that is incredibly distressing.”

Is Pop Culture to Blame?

Does the pervasiveness of reality TV and cultural phenomena like YouTube predict more Truman Show delusion diagnoses in the future? Joel Gold thinks so.

“We’ve got the ‘perfect storm’ of reality TV and the Internet. These are powerful influences in the culture we live in and for some people who are predisposed, it might be overwhelming and trigger a [psychotic] episode. The pressure of living in a large, connected community can bring out the unstable side of more vulnerable people.”

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