Mind Hacks

Internet delusions

A report in the medical journal Psychopathology notes that psychotic delusions increasingly concern the internet, suggesting high-technology can fulfil the role of malign ‘magical’ forces often experienced in psychosis.

Traditionally, psychiatry has considered the content of delusions as irrelevant and only sees the ‘form’ of a belief as important in diagnosis and treatment. For example, how true it is, how strongly it is held, how it was formed and so on.

This paper analyzes four case-reports and notes that, contrary to the traditional view, the cases are examples where an internet-theme has particular clinical implications.

In one case, a patient began to have paranoid thoughts and used an internet search engine to investigate suspicions about an ingredient on a chewing gum packet.

Her searches led her to believe she had discovered a secret terrorist network, and was therefore being personally targeted by the authorities using phone taps and hidden cameras.

Presumably, by using a different search engine, she would have found different pages, and her delusion would have been centred on something else.

The authors also consider that a person’s understanding of technology may be a limiting factor in their ability to incorporate it into a delusional system. People with a poor understanding for example, may be more likely to attribute seemingly supernatural abilities to technology.

As Arthur C. Clarke famously noted “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

In delusions that feature spirits or other supernatural forces, there is no objective limit to the perceived ‘powers’ of the ‘spirits’, making such delusions sometimes difficult to refute.

In contrast, technology-related delusions can be more easily tested against reality, making for a good prognosis by using techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

The authors also note that cultural concerns can influence delusional beliefs, suggesting technology-related delusions will become more common as the use of high-technology grows.

Link to study abstract.
PDF of full text.

Disclaimer: This paper is from my own research group.