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'Truman Show' Delusion: Odd Mental Disorder Makes People Think They Live In Counterfeit World

06/04/2012 01:04 pm 13:04:18 | Updated Jun 04, 2012

From "Survivor" to the "Real Housewives," reality TV has become part of our collective consciousness. Maybe that helps explain why psychologists are now seeing patients who harbor the delusional belief that their own lives are being staged for a play or filmed for the entertainment of others.

The strange affliction is being called the "Truman Show" delusion (TSD), after the 1998 blockbuster in which Jim Carrey plays a 30-year-old who discovers he is the main character in a fictional world and that his every move is broadcast around the planet.

It's not clear just how common "Truman Show" delusion really is. In part that's because many delusional people never seek psychiatric care, Dr. Joel Gold, the co-author of a new paper on the disorder, told The Huffington Post in an email.

"I treated the first patients who gave rise to the description of the delusion and to the name TSD about a decade ago, though some of the patients had been experiencing symptoms for years, at least one since he saw the film," said Dr. Gold, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University in New York City.

The paper describes five cases of TSD--and they show just how bizarre TSD can be.

One patient believed the attacks of 9/11 were fabricated "as part of his narrative" and traveled to New York City to see if the towers were still standing. He also believed he had cameras in his eyes.

Another patient formed a plan to travel to New York City, where he would make contact with an unknown woman at the top of the Statue of Liberty in order to be released from the control of the program's directors. He explained, "I realized that I was in the center, the focus of attention by millions and millions of people...my [family] and everyone I knew were and are actors in a script, a charade whose entire purpose is to make me the focus of the world's attention."

That certainly sounds like the "Truman Show." But can watching that movie or the reality TV shows it helped spawn really cause people to become delusional?

"Reality TV is not to blame per se (certainly the vast majority of people who watch it do not become psychotic)," Dr. Gold said in the email. "We do believe that the larger culture of instant fame, without the accompanying talent" helps foster the disorder in vulnerable people, he said, adding that the "community-building" aspect of popular media may also play a role.

"There is a well-established literature showing that urbanicity is associated with higher rates of psychosis," he said. "If we consider that the internet and other forms of mass media may be creating the largest communities in history, we believe that they may present as stressors to those at greatest risk of becoming paranoid or grandiose."

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