March 28, 2011
Over the course of the 20th century, fantasies of persecution became the defining modern delusion, suggest a pair of studies on long-term trends in psychosis.
The first, published Mar. 18 in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry , was based on 102 patient records from a psychiatric hospital in western Pennsylvania. Randomly picked and representing each decade of the 20th century, the records were interpreted as glimpses of each era’s mental atmosphere.
From these glimpses, a fuller picture emerged. After 1950, delusions involving persecution — variations on the “someone is out to get me” theme — were four times more frequent. Feelings of being spied upon increased by five.
“That more patients after 1950 believe they are being spied upon is consistent with the development of related technology and the advent of the Cold War,” wrote the researchers, who were led by Marywood University psychologist Brooke Cannon. “Delusional content tended to reflect the culture at the time, with focus on syphilis in the early 1900s, on Germans during World War II, on Communists during the Cold War, and on technology in recent years.”
Cannon’s observations echo those made by the authors of a similar 2008 long-term study of delusional themes at a hospital in Slovenia , also published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry .
“Demons, ghosts and witches as sources of influence and persecution were replaced by radio waves, television and computers,” wrote the researchers, led by Borut Skodlar, a University of Ljubljana psychiatrist. “The church, inquisitors, Napoleons and gods were replaced by secret agents, political organizations, or leaders and modern machinery.”
Whether or not the cultural and technological shifts of the internet age represent a continuation of these 20th-century themes, or will produce its own unique delusions, is an unresolved question .