Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Help, my life is a reality show!
Along with my recent posting about people who think they've been abducted by aliens, comes this recent article about people who think they're participants in a reality TV show. It's called the Truman Syndrome, after the 1998 movie, The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey. Some psychiatric patients believe their life is being filmed without their permission.
Like alien abduction, the Truman syndrome is fueled by popular culture, and has worked its way into personal delusions. Quoting the copyrighted article by Jennifer Peltz of the Associated Press:
Researchers have begun documenting what they dub the "Truman syndrome," a delusion afflicting people who are convinced that their lives are secretly playing out on a reality TV show. Scientists say the disorder underscores the influence pop culture can have on mental conditions. "The question is really: Is this just a new twist on an old paranoid or grandiose delusion ... or is there sort of a perfect storm of the culture we're in, in which fame holds such high value?" said Dr. Joel Gold, a psychiatrist affiliated with New York's Bellevue Hospital.
In the last two years, Gold has encountered five patients with delusions related to reality TV. Several of them specifically mentioned "The Truman Show." Gold and his brother, a psychologist, started presenting their observations at medical schools in 2006. After word spread beyond medical circles this summer, they learned of about 50 more people with similar symptoms. The Oscar-nominated movie stars Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank. He leads a merrily uneventful life until he realizes his friends and family are actors, his seaside town is a TV soundstage and every moment of his life has been broadcast.
His struggle to sort out reality and illusion is heartwarming, but researchers say it's often horrifying for "Truman syndrome" patients. A few take pride in their imagined celebrity, but many are deeply upset at what feels like an Orwellian invasion of privacy. Delusions can be a symptom of various psychiatric illnesses, as well as neurological conditions such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Some drugs also can make people delusional.
It's not unusual for psychiatrists to see delusional patients who believe their relatives have been replaced by impostors or who think figures in their lives are taking on multiple disguises.
But "Truman" delusions are more sweeping, involving not just some associates but society at large, Gold said. Delusions tend to be classified by broad categories, such as the belief that one is being persecuted, but research has shown culture and technology can also affect them. Reality television may help such patients convince themselves their experiences are plausible, according to the Austrian woman's psychiatrists, writing in the journal Psychopathology in 2004.
Ian Gold, a philosophy and psychology professor at McGill University in Montreal who has researched the matter with his brother, suggests reality TV and the Web, with their ability to make strangers into intimates, may compound psychological pressure on people who have underlying problems dealing with others. That's not to say reality shows make healthy people delusional, "but, at the very least, it seems possible to me that people who would become ill are becoming ill quicker or in a different way," Ian Gold said.
Other researchers aren't convinced, but still find the "Truman syndrome" an interesting example of the connection between culture and mental health.
Makes sense to me. My personal feeling is that for some people fantasy, in the form of television, can become reality. It's a hell of a lot more interesting. Unfortunately for some of us, the dull reality of daily life can't be shut off by a remote control. For anyone actually wanting to invade my privacy and watch my daily life, well, good luck. I lead the most boring life imaginable. Even I pray for commercial breaks to get relief from the crushing monotony.