How reality caught up with paranoid delusions

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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, the subject travelled to New York, demanding to see the ‘director’ of the film of his life, and wishing to check whether the World Trade Centre had been destroyed in reality or merely in the movie that was being assembled for his benefit. In another, a journalist who had been hospitalised during a manic episode became convinced that the medical scenario was fake and that he would be awarded a prize for covering the story once the truth was revealed. Another subject was actually working on a reality TV series but came to believe that his fellow crew members were secretly filming him, and was constantly expecting the This-Is-Your-Life moment when the cameras would flip and reveal that he was the true star of the show.

Few commentators were able to resist the idea that these cases — all diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and treated with antipsychotic medication — were in some sense the tip of the iceberg, exposing a pathology in our culture as a whole. They were taken as extreme examples of a wider modern malaise: an obsession with celebrity turning us all into narcissistic stars of our own lives, or a media-saturated culture warping our sense of reality and blurring the line between fact and fiction. They seemed to capture the zeitgeist perfectly: cautionary tales for an age in which our experience of reality is manicured and customised in subtle and insidious ways, and everything from our junk mail to our online searches discreetly encourages us in the assumption that we are the centre of the universe.

Written By: Mike Jay
continue to source article at aeonmagazine.com

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  1. The main argument that a paranoid delusion in improbable is why would this entire organisation pick you of all people for all this care and attention? There is nothing special about you. You are privy to no national secrets. You have no special powers. You have no undue influence on public opinion. To believe this delusion is massive conceit.

    • In reply to #1 by Roedy:
      The trouble is, TV channels are full of people in ‘reality shows’ that have no special influence, or abiities. Why shouldn’t these deluded people be among them? What’s the big difference between them and someone who’s been lured away so their house can be given a 24-hour makeover or something?

    • In reply to #1 by Roedy:_

      Agreed,

      I knew a guy once who was convinced that there were cameras in his TV watching him while he was watching TV. I asked him 2 questions. 1. How many people would it take to watch all of the people on Earth? 2. Exactly what were they going to see that was worth watching? He thought for a moment and not being able to come up with a satisfactory answer changed the subject to some other paraniod topic.

      What was interesting about this was that he a grown man (then in his fifties) could have wasted enoromus amounts of time on his paraniod delusions but never spend the 30 seconds question his perceptions.

      Ironically, now I note he has a facebook page, and Skypes using a web camera and microphone built into his computer moniter!

      • In reply to #3 by Reckless Monkey:

        In reply to #1 by Roedy:_

        What was interesting about this was that he a grown man (then in his fifties) could have wasted enoromus amounts of time on his paraniod delusions but never spend the 30 seconds question his perceptions.

        If he could see his way out of it by questioning his own perceptions it wouldn’t be a mental illness. Mentally ill people can’t just walk away from what to us are obvious misperceptions. Your typical anxiety patient wastes an amazing amount of their life worrying about things that will never happen, OCD patients waste their lives washing their hands or driving home repeated times to check the oven really is off or the front door really is locked or … That’s what the disease does.

        Michael

        • In reply to #8 by mmurray:

          In reply to #3 by Reckless Monkey:

          In reply to #1 by Roedy:_

          If he could see his way out of it by questioning his own perceptions it wouldn’t be a mental illness. Mentally ill people can’t just walk away from what to us are obvious misperceptions. Your typical anxiety patient wastes an amazing amount of their life worrying about things that will never happen, OCD patients waste their lives washing their hands or driving home repeated times to check the oven really is off or the front door really is locked or … That’s what the disease does.

          You’re right of course, your perception to a large extend defines your reality. However I don’t think in this case he is metally ill. Otherwise surpisingly normal. He just happens to belong to a very right wing religious group and listens to some of conspiracy guff they push (which unknown to him is ultimately ends in anti-semetic the world is under the charge of the lizard people- he hasn’t followed it this far however). He is gullible, a bit insecure but I don’t think he would be diagnosed either with anxiety or OCD.

      • This is an interesting and fun piece. I think his style gets in the way at times but he’s trying to conjure up big ideas.

        In reply to #3 by Reckless Monkey:

        I’ll play devil’s advocate.

        It’s not that simple. First, collecting data is a largely automated process already. To the second point, you are only uninteresting so long as you remain mostly anonymous. Collecting data on uninteresting anonymous individuals can pay dividends should any one of them suddenly become something more. A smear campaign is an obvious example of the usefulness of such seemingly useless large scale data collection. Can your sense of humor so spectacularly illustrated through your Youtube habits really stand to be scrutinized by a public being led by an agency hellbent on embarrassing you? I doubt it. Yeah it’s harmless, but the way they tell it…

        They’re clever. ;-)

        • In reply to #17 by Sean_W:

          This is an interesting and fun piece. I think his style gets in the way at times but he’s trying to conjure up big ideas.

          In reply to #3 by Reckless Monkey:

          It’s not that simple. First, collecting data is a largely automated process already. To the second point, you are only uninteresting so long as you remain mostly anonymous. Collecting data on uninteresting anonymous individuals can pay dividends should any one of them suddenly become something more. A smear campaign is an obvious example of the usefulness of such seemingly useless large scale data collection. Can your sense of humor so spectacularly illustrated through your Youtube habits really stand to be scrutinized by a public being led by an agency hellbent on embarrassing you? I doubt it. Yeah it’s harmless, but the way they tell it…

          I agree, I liked the article too. I teach technology at a high school and I alway try to make students aware that if I were an employer the very first thing I would do is google the applicants name and check out their facebook page. I get my year 11′s to do a vanity search on google and they are often shocked that facebook has given all their photos over to google images to increase hits to facebook to increase advertising ratings (because they didn’t turn that off in settings) and all their drunken parties and bitchy comments there for all to see.

          At the time my friend was stating all of this the internet was not very big (still running DOS on my home PC). I just find it ironic that he was worried about cameras in his TV then and now has a laptop with a camera staring at him all the time. Not very consistent paranoia. Of course, just because your parniod doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you;)

    • In reply to #1 by Roedy:

      The main argument that a paranoid delusion in improbable is why would this entire organisation pick you of all people for all this care and
      attention? There is nothing special about you. You are privy to no national secrets. You have no special powers. You have no undue >influence on public opinion. To believe this delusion is massive conceit.

      Yeah, it’s like these people are ill or something.

  2. Schizophrenics used to see demons and spirits. Now they talk about actors and hidden cameras

    In between, they talked a lot about alien abductions, sometimes good alien abductions, other times evil alien abductions.

    • In reply to #5 by MilitantNonStampCollector:

      Religion is just another form of this type of collective schizophrenia.

      I don’t think that’s quite right. Modern religious thought manifests it, as with the “God thinks as I do” study (of US college students, IIRC), but I’m not sure it does per se or that it always has done. Then again, the (mocking) elevation of the lowly and encouraging identification with the psychology of high-status individuals (which does seem to have tended to be narcissistic, though also psychopathic, over the long-term) has happened for a long time. But that’s somewhat peculiar to Christianity, I don’t think it’s a quality of all or most religions.

      Roedy, often people with such delusions believe that the things you suggest as evidence are true, for instance that secrets are being passed to them in code to prevent others from observing and knowing that the secret is being passed, or that certain things people say have hidden significance (which is sometimes true, of course). They can also believe that they have powers, but cannot use them for some reason, for instance that they can walk through a wall but that someone will die if they do so.

    • In reply to #6 by QuestioningKat:

      It’s best to put a post-it over the camera on your computer. No telling if anyone is watching. :D

      Actually this is a real thing. There are sickos who hack computers and watch their owners through their webcams. They have their own forums where they share favourite targets of this treatment, and sometimes further hack their computers to send messages to their victims or open programs and websites.

      If the light on your webcam turns on without cause, cover it.

  3. While there has always often been somewhat of an arbitrary element regarding who gets to be famous and who doesn’t, in the 21st century, it appears to have reached new levels of absurdity. For instance, to this day, I have no idea how the cast of “The Jersey Shore” somehow came to the attention of a well known cable network, how that network decided that there would be a huge audience for that sort of thing, and most astonishingly, how they proved to be correct. I wonder if one of the cast members just called up the receptionist at MTV one day and said, “Hey, we live in Joisey and you ought to follow us around with a camera all day. We are the very embodiment of every negative stereotype everyone has ever imagined about Italian Americans, people will point at us and laugh, and we love to be pointed and laughed at.”

    With all these constant in-your-face examples of untalented people suddenly turning into overnight celebrities for no apparent reason, it’s not all that farfetched a concept for Joe or Jane Shmo sitting behind his or her desktop in the middle of Nowhere Nebraska to imagine the whole country being equally as fascinated by them. They just choose to ignore the fact that the only cameras being pointed at them are ones they can easily shut off themselves, and that the amount of people following them on Twitter number in the lower double digits, and are all neighbors and relatives.

  4. Okay, so it is astronomically unlikely that anyone is filming our every activity. But ya never know, so it is probably wise to dress nice and comb your hair, and pick your nose as little as possible.

    And just to be sure, I am going to start using the toilet behind a sheet of tin foil.

  5. A current theory on schizophrenia which appears to have good explanatory power has it that schizophrenics have impaired access to semantic knowledge, those refined and generalised memories that constitute generalised knowledge about the world, the how and why stuff happens. Brains are in a continual state of invention about the near future and present, anticipating the experiences you are about to have and choosing what to notice and what to substitute with the pre-guess. This pre-guess serves two useful purposes. First it dramatically reduces the new information computing requirements by not noticing in the first place. Second, the anticipation creates a template on which to lay actual experience with any mismatch causing error detectors to flag a halt to the flow to your anticipations, experiences and actions and a re-focus of attention. The “problem” requires a little concentration of brain power to resolve the surprise. We may laugh when we see that the meaning of the word the comic used had two distinct meanings, one of them rude. Or sigh when we realise Jenny was right all along. The boss is a bastard….

    Schizophrenics with their semantic memory deficit hit such errors all the time and in unexpected places. Natural events may confound them having lost access to their normal expectations. At a loss to explain the shock of the “novel” experience they often resort to that most universal of explanatory tools, that of agency.

    Agents have the characteristics of having broad intentions but immediate unpredictability. They can also watch us or find out about us without our being aware. This is ideal for knitting together a series of (otherwise random) unfortunate events. Fussy and multiple pieces of semantic knowledge are replaced with fewer, simpler and more universal (but wrong) elements.

    Gods fit the explanatory bill perfectly, but so too Reality TV companies, executives or their visible angelic representatives the Kardashians.
    Gods were the perfect agents of their day, but it seems utterly reasonable, that the manifestations of schizophrenia will remain closely tied to the cultures in which they appear as they always have, if you survey the concerns of schizophrenics down the ages and across the globe. We should predict how it may appear with the growing number of neural implants and external connectivity for example. The hive awaits…The actual truth though may get a little blurry.

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