In 1998, a movie called The Truman Show premiered, starring Jim Carrey. The plot of the film is about a man who has no idea that his entire life has been filmed by hidden cameras and broadcast as a reality TV series. Everyone in his life is a paid actor. Nothing is real, no one can be trusted, and the whole world is watching him.
Psychiatrist Joel Gold from New York began to notice the phenomenon of several patients believing that the people in their lives are reading from a script and that everything is being filmed. Many of them even brought up The Truman Show by name in order to get Dr. Gold to understand how they felt. Together with his brother, philosopher Ian Gold, they decided to coin this form of mental illness as the Truman Show delusion (also called Truman syndrome) in their book, Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness. So, what exactly is this delusion? Why do people get it, and what is life like when you believe you’re the star of your own reality series?
10 Grandiose Delusions
The Truman Show delusion is not necessarily a new thing. In the past, having what is known as a grandiose delusion could lead someone to believe that they are a famous figure like Jesus Christ or Napoleon Bonaparte. It is most common in people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance abuse, dementia, and psychosis. People who are predisposed to have delusions of grandeur have been known to do awful things when they take drugs, like jump off a building because they believe they can fly.
According to Dr. Joseph Weiner, two of his patients told him that they were Elizabeth Taylor in the same week. Even if they do not necessarily think they are a celebrity, a grandiose delusion will make someone feel far more important than they actually are. They think they are extremely talented, rich, or famous.
For the first time in history, normal people are finding themselves as the stars of reality TV series, if the stars of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo can live next to the railroad tracks and clip coupons. Since someone with grandiose delusions already believes that they are very special, it’s not too far of a stretch for them to think their own life is interesting enough to become a reality TV show.
9 The First Of Many
The first patient who inspired the term “Truman Show Delusion” that Dr. Joel Gold treated was a man who is known by the pseudonym “Albert.” He believed that he was trapped inside of a reality TV show. He believed that the 9/11 attacks did not actually happen and that the whole thing was just a ploy to scare him into not flying anywhere to escape the giant TV soundstage. So, he flew to New York City to see it in person. Albert believed that cameras were implanted in his eyes and that video recordings of his life were being used as footage.
While he was in the city, Albert became sick of being monitored 24/7. He knew that he needed help, so he sought asylum at the United Nations. When a security guard tried to stop him from entering the building, Albert believed that this man was working for the TV show and took a swing at him. He was arrested and brought to the Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, where he met Dr. Gold.
Over time, four other patients at the hospital began describing similar delusions, and every single one of them used The Truman Show as a reference to help Dr. Gold understand their experience.
8 Pareidolia And Delusions Of Reference
Illusionist Derren Brown played mind games on several people in a TV special called Fear and Faith. He explains pareidolia, which is the brain’s predisposition to find patterns in the world around us in order to make sense of what is going on. Brown interviews a woman named Emma and tells her that she is going to be on his new TV show called Intervention. He claims that she will be followed by actors who are paid to help teach her valuable lessons about life. They have also convinced her closest family and friends to take part in the TV show as well. Brown told Emma that her life would be filmed by hidden cameras all around her for two weeks, and she was asked to record a video diary at the end of each day to explain her experiences and the lessons she learned from the actors.
In reality, no one was actually following her, and no one was an actor. But the mere suggestion that she was involved in a Truman Show–like world was enough for her to believe it was real, and she found meaning in small interactions with people. Since she believed that she was being watched the entire time, Emma began to analyze herself more and made positive changes in her life.
A delusion of reference is very similar to what happened in Emma’s case, except that sufferers were never told that people would be watching them. They just decided one day that they’re the center of the social world. They continue to seek evidence in the world around them that this is true, and even tiny events hold a bigger significance.
7 Persecutory Delusions
A person with the Truman Show delusion often has a form of persecutory delusion, which means that they believe they’re being punished for something that they have done. Just like the movie, people suffering from this delusion believe that they are being used for other people’s entertainment and that they are being told that they are crazy because it’s the only way to keep them in check.
One patient, called “Mr. E,” knew that he had ADHD and depression for years, but no one in his family knew that believed that he was being filmed by the government as some sort of experiment and that absolutely everything was faked, including doctor’s visits, news broadcasts on TV, and interactions with his family and friends. He thought that the whole experiment would all stop by Christmas Day, when the film crew went on holiday break and wrapped up the season. Mr. E was diagnosed with schizophreniform disorder, which is when a person shows symptoms of schizophrenia, but it lasts for less than six months.
A man named Jonny Benjamin posts videos on his YouTube channel opening up about his mental illness and psychotic episodes. In one video, he claims that he suffered from the Truman Show delusion as a child as a result of feeling socially awkward and isolated.
As a kid growing up in London, Benjamin never fit in with his peers at an all-boy school. Instead of playing sports, he wanted to play house and make-believe. As he grew older, his classmates thought he was weird, and he had no friends. Teachers knew that he loved to play pretend, so they chose him to participate in a project for the school where he was filmed for a video. After the video was done, boys who never spoke to him before suddenly wanted to be his friend because he was “famous.” He described it as like a euphoric experience where he was floating across the room, and boys were coming at him left and right, saying, “How was it?” and, “Wow! You got to be on film! So Cool!”
This experience, combined with watching The Truman Show as a child, triggered the beginning of his delusions. Benjamin explains that the things he wanted the most were to be famous and well-liked, instead of an outcast. The idea that he was being filmed helped him to become more outgoing.
As he grew up, any time a coincidence happened, he attributed it to being on a reality show. For example, if he thought of a friend, and they texted him a few minutes later, it was because the “director” told them to. If he had a song stuck in his head, and it was on the radio that day, it was part of the background music in the “scene.”
When he was 20 years old, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Even after being aware of his mental issues, he still looks for signs that he truly is the star of a reality TV show.
5 Suspicion vs. Reflective Systems
According to Dr. Gold, everyone’s brain has a Suspicion System, which evaluates a potential social threat, which is counterbalanced with the Reflective System, which gathers evidence in order to find a rational explanation to make everything okay. Basically, the brain makes us check ourselves before we wreck ourselves.
For example, maybe you see a car that seems to be following you while you’re driving to work. Your Suspicion System might wonder if they are a spy sent to track you, but your Reflection System will quickly remind you that this person probably just needs to go to work, too, and it’s purely a coincidence that they are driving the same route.
For some people, this mechanism is totally out of balance. If they suspect that something is happening to them, it becomes the truth, and they cannot think rationally about their suspicions. It only makes sense that if they watch a movie, a “what if” thought exercise spirals into an alternate reality.
4 A Sign Of The Times
Considering that the NSA is known for monitoring web activity, webcams are getting hacked, and CCTV cameras are posted in major cities around the world, it’s actually not too far of a stretch to believe that we are being watched. For someone who is already predisposed toward the Truman Show delusion, it doesn’t take much to slip that idea into their heads.
During an interview with The New Yorker, Dr. Joel Gold explains that in every single generation, there is a new version of this type of delusion, and it always follows what is happening in technology and popular culture. In the past, people believed that radio waves were controlling their mind. Now, they believe in hidden cameras and implanted computer chips. The fact that some people believe that they’re the star of their own reality show almost says more about society as a whole than it does the individual person.
3 Losing Control
Dr. Gold believes that one of the many factors contributing to certain delusions is the fear of losing control over one’s life. These types of delusions come in many forms. For example, a mentally ill person may believe they were abducted by aliens and implanted with a chip in their brain that is controlling their every move. They have no choice but to continue to be abducted by these extraterrestrial beings, who are far more powerful than humans can imagine, and they are experimented on throughout their life. Other times, the government is out to get them.
The Truman Show delusion is very much the same sort of waking nightmare where one loses control over their own destiny. Being in The Truman Show and being in The Matrix would be very similar delusions. Nothing is real, and it’s being controlled by some sort of producer or overlord. There is no potential to escape.
2 The Urban Jungle
One of the stereotypes of millennials is their need for constant approval and attention for their actions by posting about their lives on social media. People are beginning to be conditioned from a young age that digital views and “likes” are a measure of their real self-worth. Being well-liked both online and in person is very important for young people. If they are not getting that sense of satisfaction in day-to-day life, it can lead to a delusion in order for them to cope.
Dr. Gold notes in his book that it is far more common for this type of delusion to occur in people who live in urban areas, because living in a big city can make someone feel very small and insignificant. This becomes especially difficult for people who lived in a small towns where everyone knew their name, and they are not used to the loneliness when they move to a city. According to a British study, moving to an urban area can be a trigger for psychosis to come out in people, when they would have otherwise never had that issue if they had just stayed in their hometowns.
Critics of the Gold brothers have theorized that these delusions are not real and that patients who claim to have the Truman Show delusion are just attention-seekers. Dr. Joel Gold has received dozens of e-mails from people who try to tell him that these “sufferers” are making it up. However, he receives far more e-mails from people who also believe that they are living in a reality show, and they have never been to a mental hospital for diagnosis.
Gold began working with 20 new patients through these initial e-mails. He describes their stories as incredibly frightening. It is a very isolating experience to think that no one around you can be trusted because they’re actors. Gold believes that it’s not something that anyone would put on themselves, if they could help it. He also says that as he studies the Truman Show delusion, he finds a few answers but far more questions.
Shannon Quinn is a writer and entrepreneur from the Philadelphia area. You can find her on Twitter @ShannQ.