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The Reality Show: Schizophrenics now making sense over ‘actors and hidden cameras’

21st Century Wire says…

As we march mindlessly into our brave new digital world, there’s more going on behind the scenes in the minds of millions.

“In the 21st century, the influencing machine has escaped from the shuttered wards of the mental hospital to become a distinctive myth for our times. It is compelling not because we all have schizophrenia, but because reality has become a grey scale between the external world and our imaginations. The world is now mediated in part by technologies that fabricate it and partly by our own minds, whose pattern-recognition routines work ceaselessly to stitch digital illusions into the private cinema of our consciousness.”

A very thought-provoking article here by author Mike Jay in Aeon Magazine…

Schizophrenics used to see demons and spirits. Now they talk about actors and hidden cameras – and make a lot of sense

Mike Jay
Aeon Magazine

Clinical psychiatry papers rarely make much of a splash in the wider media, but it seems appropriate that a paper entitled ‘The Truman Show Delusion: Psychosis in the Global Village’published in the May 2012 issue of Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, should have caused a global sensation. Its authors, the brothers Joel and Ian Gold, presented a striking series of cases in which individuals had become convinced that they were secretly being filmed for a reality TV show.

In one case, the subject travelled to New York, demanding to see the ‘director’ of the film of his life, and wishing to check whether the World Trade Centre had been destroyed in reality or merely in the movie that was being assembled for his benefit. In another, a journalist who had been hospitalised during a manic episode became convinced that the medical scenario was fake and that he would be awarded a prize for covering the story once the truth was revealed. Another subject was actually working on a reality TV series but came to believe that his fellow crew members were secretly filming him, and was constantly expecting the This-Is-Your-Life moment when the cameras would flip and reveal that he was the true star of the show.

Few commentators were able to resist the idea that these cases — all diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and treated with antipsychotic medication — were in some sense the tip of the iceberg, exposing a pathology in our culture as a whole. They were taken as extreme examples of a wider modern malaise: an obsession with celebrity turning us all into narcissistic stars of our own lives, or a media-saturated culture warping our sense of reality and blurring the line between fact and fiction. They seemed to capture the zeitgeistperfectly: cautionary tales for an age in which our experience of reality is manicured and customised in subtle and insidious ways, and everything from our junk mail to our online searches discreetly encourages us in the assumption that we are the centre of the universe.

But part of the reason that the Truman Show delusion seems so uncannily in tune with the times is that Hollywood blockbusters now regularly present narratives that, until recently, were confined to psychiatrists’ case notes and the clinical literature on paranoid psychosis. Popular culture hums with stories about technology that secretly observes and controls our thoughts, or in which reality is simulated with virtual constructs or implanted memories, and where the truth can be glimpsed only in distorted dream sequences or chance moments when the mask slips. A couple of decades ago, such beliefs would mark out fictional characters as crazy, more often than not homicidal maniacs. Today, they are more likely to identify a protagonist who, like Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank, genuinely has stumbled onto a carefully orchestrated secret of which those around him are blandly unaware. These stories obviously resonate with our technology-saturated modernity. What’s less clear is why they so readily adopt a perspective that was, until recently, a hallmark of radical estrangement from reality. Does this suggest that media technologies are making us all paranoid? Or that paranoid delusions suddenly make more sense than they used to?

The first person to examine the curiously symbiotic relationship between new technologies and the symptoms of psychosis was Victor Tausk, an early disciple of Sigmund Freud. In 1919, he published a paper on a phenomenon he called ‘the influencing machine’. Tausk had noticed that it was common for patients with the recently coined diagnosis of schizophrenia to be convinced that their minds and bodies were being controlled by advanced technologies invisible to everyone but them. These ‘influencing machines’ were often elaborately conceived and predicated on the new devices that were transforming modern life. Patients reported that they were receiving messages transmitted by hidden batteries, coils and electrical apparatus; voices in their heads were relayed by advanced forms of telephone or phonograph, and visual hallucinations by the covert operation of ‘a magic lantern or cinematograph’. Tausk’s most detailed case study was of a patient named ‘Natalija A’, who believed that her thoughts were being controlled and her body manipulated by an electrical apparatus secretly operated by doctors in Berlin. The device was shaped like her own body, its stomach a velvet-lined lid that could be opened to reveal batteries corresponding to her internal organs.

Although these beliefs were wildly delusional, Tausk detected a method in their madness: a reflection of the dreams and nightmares of a rapidly evolving world. Electric dynamos were flooding Europe’s cities with power and light, their branching networks echoing the filigree structures seen in laboratory slides of the human nervous system. New discoveries such as X-rays and radio were exposing hitherto invisible worlds and mysterious powers that were daily discussed in popular science journals, extrapolated in pulp fiction magazines and claimed by spiritualists as evidence for the ‘other side’. But all this novelty was not, in Tausk’s view, creating new forms of mental illness. Rather, modern developments were providing his patients with a new language to describe their condition.

At the core of schizophrenia, he argued, was a ‘loss of ego-boundaries’ that made it impossible for subjects to impose their will on reality, or to form a coherent idea of the self. Without a will of their own, it seemed to them that the thoughts and words of others were being forced into their heads and issued from their mouths, and their bodies were manipulated like puppets, subjected to tortures or arranged in mysterious postures. These experiences made no rational sense, but those who suffered them were nevertheless subject to what Tausk called ‘the need for causality that is inherent in man’. They felt themselves at the mercy of malign external forces, and their unconscious minds fashioned an explanation from the material to hand, often with striking ingenuity. Unable to impose meaning on the world, they became empty vessels for the cultural artefacts and assumptions that swirled around them. By the early 20th century, many found themselves gripped by the conviction that some hidden operator was tormenting them with advanced technology.

A desert nomad is more likely to believe that he is being buried alive in sand by a djinn, and an urban American that he has been implanted with a microchip and is being monitored by the CIA

Tausk’s theory was radical in its implication that the utterances of psychosis were not random gibberish but a bricolage, often artfully constructed, of collective beliefs and preoccupations. Throughout history up to this point, the explanatory frame for such experiences had been essentially religious: they were seen as possession by evil spirits, divine visitations, witchcraft, or snares of the devil. In the modern age, these beliefs remained common, but alternative explanations were now available. The hallucinations experienced by psychotic patients, Tausk observed, are not typically three-dimensional objects but projections ‘seen on a single plane, on walls or windowpanes’. The new technology of cinema replicated this sensation precisely and was in many respects a rational explanation of it: one that ‘does not reveal any error of judgment beyond the fact of its non-existence’.

In their instinctive grasp of technology’s implicit powers and threats, influencing machines can be convincingly futuristic and even astonishingly prescient. The very first recorded case, from 1810, was a Bedlam inmate named James Tilly Matthews who drew exquisite technical drawings of the machine that was controlling his mind. The ‘Air Loom’, as he called it, used the advanced science of his day — artificial gases and mesmeric rays — to direct invisible currents into his brain, where a magnet had been implanted to receive them. Matthews’s world of electrically charged beams and currents, sheer lunacy to his contemporaries, is now part of our cultural furniture. A quick internet search reveals dozens of online communities devoted to discussing magnetic brain implants, both real and imagined.

The Gold brothers’ interpretation of the Truman Show delusion runs along similar lines. It might appear to be a new phenomenon that has emerged in response to our hypermodern media culture, but is in fact a familiar condition given a modern makeover. They make a primary distinction between the content of delusions, which is spectacularly varied and imaginative, and the basic forms of delusion, which they characterise as ‘both universal and rather small in number’.

Persecutory delusions, for example, can be found throughout history and across cultures; but within this category a desert nomad is more likely to believe that he is being buried alive in sand by a djinn, and an urban American that he has been implanted with a microchip and is being monitored by the CIA…

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