Some people live their lives like they are celebrities, making a conscious lifestyle choice to conduct themselves as living a glamorous life. But there are others who live their lives like celebrities who actually believe that they are reality television stars, part of a continually playing media event, or are trapped in an ongoing performance where they are the center of electronic attention, constantly under surveillance. Researchers are calling these psychological anomalies examples of “Truman Syndrome,” named after the title character played by Jim Carey in the 1998 movie “The Truman Show,” where a young man had lived his entire life unaware that he was on camera.
The Associated Press has reported that evidence of these delusions actually occur. One man, convinced that he was in a reality show, asked workers at a federal building to release him. Another believed in was in a contest. Still another thought he was being watched and monitored constantly. One psychologist told of a patient that believed they existed in a real world version of the hit movie, “The Matrix.”
Dr. Joel Gold and his brother, Ian, both psychologists, have been presenting case study evidence of their findings since 2006. They soon found out that their handful of cases were just a small portion of a more prevalent disorder. Gold, who is a psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital in New York, said, “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?”
Ian Gold, a professor a McGill University in Montreal, believes that people who already have problems interacting or socializing with others may be more susceptible to “Truman Syndrome.” Reality television and the internet, both of which tend to make people feel more attuned or intimate with complete strangers, only exacerbates conditions and result in these types of delusions.
Delusions take on various forms and can be the result of various neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s. They can also be chemically induced or the result of physiological trauma to the brain. Although the origin of the syndrome may differ and the delusions may vary in extent and detail, there is little doubt that there are individuals who labor under the belief that they literally exist under the microscope of watchful people.
In the movie, “The Truman Show,” Jim Carey, who plays happy-go-lucky Truman Burbank, blithefully lives his life on camera oblivious to the fact that his entire world is a Hollywood construct, his family and friends just actors.
But imagine if it were real. And you knew that people observed you continually. For some, those who don’t mind attention, the status of celebrity might not be such a terrible thing. But for others whose mindset finds an invasion of privacy a form of oppression or persecution, the feelings of being surveilled would become unbearable.
In fact, a postman in London suffers from Truman Syndrome to the point that he cannot work. He has also been diagnosed schizophrenic.
One of the Golds’ patients admitted to being willing to attempt suicide to escape his reality show life, according to the Guardian.
And it isn’t really that difficult to understand how such a psychological disorder might come about. Immersed in a global culture that transmits information continuously, with cameras everywhere, even some so small as to be indistinguishable from their surroundings, feeling like one is being watched might seem almost normal. Compound this with conspiracy theories, amazing technological advances, the swiftness with which many criminals get caught, I-reports, webcams, camera phones, up-to-the-minute and breaking news, live reports, satellites, cell phones, recording devices, and on and on. If one were the least bit predisposed to the suggestion, delusions of being observed could be engendered and reinforced on a continuous and constant basis.
Reality television and live performances also contribute to feelings of immediacy. The people are real, they’re acting out their part of the show, and, depending upon the state of delusion, might become complicit actors in an individual’s delusion. Large screen high definition televisions can also lend to the problem through clarity and scale. Social conformism also plays a role. Children and adults are continuously mouthing the social dictum that everyone be careful of doing antisocial or “bad” things because “somebody” is “watching you.”
As psychologist Vaughan Bell told the Associated Press, pop culture was not the root of the disorders like Truman Syndrome. “But I do think that it is only possible to fully understand delusions and psychosis in light of our wider culture.”
One might wonder how much that culture became part of the life of Abraham Biggs, the 19-year-old Florida college student who committed suicide last week in front of what is believed now to be thousands of onlookers. Could Truman Syndrome have been part of his mental makeup? He certainly knew he was being observed. Had he become part of an ongoing reality show, not only in reality (because he truly was being observed) but mentally as well, pushing him to perform the suicide act? Could he have thought that he would simply be resurrected on another show on another day and time? Could Truman Syndrome have contributed to his feelings of connectedness to those on the other side of the camera — or the opposite, that he was apart from them as the observed, the actor of the show?
Those questions will unfortunately never be answered.
Some delusions are a reflection of our cultures. And as technology becomes more unobtrusive and more invasive, the Truman Syndrome will more likely as not become more widespread. There may even be a certain point where — with cameras in every home, on every streetcorner, in every vehicle, being carried in every cell phone, and watching from thousands of satellites orbiting overhead — the Truman Syndrome isn’t really a delusion at all.