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'The "Truman Show" Delusion' - Life as a Reality TV Show

21 June 2012 Taylor & Francis

‘We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.’ – Ed Harris, The Truman Show (1998)

Over the last decade, millions of words have been written about the effect of ‘Reality TV’ on our cultural and social lives. Much less discussed are the possible interior ramifications such forms of broadcasting can have on our minds.

A vital new investigation into this subject appears in the latest issue of the journal Cognitive Neuropsychiatry.  A paper by Joel and Ian Gold, entitled The “Truman Show” Delusion: Psychosis in the Global Village describes several cases of patients who think their lives are being filmed and broadcast in circumstances like the scenario in the 1998 Jim Carrey film. Three of the patients featured in the report even refer to the movie by name.

Directed by Peter Weir, The Truman Show depicted Carrey’s character as a man unaware that the intimate details of his life are being shown every day to a global audience of millions. As the realisation of his true predicament gradually dawns, he begins to exhibit symptoms and behaviors indistinguishable from what the real world would understand as a persecutory delusion. The closer to the truth he gets, the crazier he seems.

The real-life patients described in The “Truman Show” Delusion are therefore engaged in a reversal of the movie’s plot – their symptoms recall Truman’s, without the knowledge that their attempts to understand the ‘truth’ of their situation will afford them a happy, Hollywood ending.

Although it might sometimes feel like it, it’s not the case that watching reality TV can trigger psychotic or delusional episodes. But underlying illnesses such as schizophrenia can react with ‘reality’-saturated TV schedules to shape and colour the nature of the delusion the patient experiences – sometimes creating forms that, observed from outside, seem curiously half-familiar.

The report itself looks at the phenomenon from three directions: the first describes and characterises the “Truman Show” delusion; the next looks at the role that cultural objects and influences can play in shaping clinical delusions; and the third discusses the implications of this ‘cultural study’ of delusion, and how it effects our existing understand of how delusions work.

The preliminary result of the investigation shows that while particular delusional ideas are culture-sensitive, the broader categories of the types of delusion people suffer from tend to remain the same across time and cultural influence. The authors conclude that cultural studies of delusion are to become an essential part of understanding how such conditions operate.

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