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5 Disorders Caused by the Internet, TV, Magazines and Movies

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1. Truman Show Delusion

Until a studio light fell from the “sky” near his house, Truman Burbank lived a perfectly normal life. Then he found out that his entire life was spent on the set of a TV show, and everyone he ever knew was in on the ruse.

The movie The Truman Show came out in 1998, and by 2002 brothers Joel and Ian Gold (a psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry, respectively) were meeting patients convinced that their lives were recorded and broadcast 24/7, and that everyone they’d ever known was in on it. One man, certain he was being fooled by crafty actors and elaborate sets, traveled to New York after 9/11 to see Ground Zero for himself. He’d assumed the attack was part of his show, and that seeing the towers standing would be his proof. Another sought asylum from his show in a Manhattan federal building.

Truman Show Delusion’s name didn’t come around until 2008, and was coined by the Gold brothers after a number of patients cited the movie as a direct parallel to their lives. Over 40 cases have been verified, mostly in white men ages 25-34.

2. Münchausen by Internet

Like Münchausen syndrome—wherein a person pretends to be ill, victimized in some way, or suffering from psychological trauma in order to get attention and sympathy from others—Münchausen by Internet is a patterned behavior of feigned illness, trauma or victimization carried out on the Internet. When the disorder was first identified in 2000, this took place mostly in chat rooms, forums or via IRC. Nowadays you’ll see it playing out via blogs and social media accounts, most famously in the case of 40-year-old Debbie Swenson.

For two years, Swenson blogged about her (fabricated) experiences as a 19-year-old girl with leukemia. “Kaycee Nicole” garnered a huge following, as did Swenson herself, who blogged separately as Kaycee’s mother. In 2001, when Swenson reported that Kaycee had died of an aneurysm, Kaycee’s followers became suspicious of Swenson, who refused cards and gifts and wouldn't divulge funeral details. After discovering piece by piece that Kaycee never existed, the fictional girl’s followers demanded an explanation; eventually Swenson admitted that she’d combined the stories of a few real cancer patients to build a believable character.

3. Conversion Disorder

Conversion disorder used to be called “mass hysteria,” and generally it occurs only in groups of people who spend a lot of time, or a significant moment in time, together. The symptoms—nervous tics, for example—appear to be neurological, but don’t have a neurological cause. In theory, it’s spread by unconscious mimicry of others with the symptoms, similar to the way one person’s yawn can make an entire roomful of coworkers yawn.

But a case of Tourette’s-like symptoms afflicting a dozen students in LeRoy, New York, is changing the way we define a “group.” After a few girls experienced tics, verbal outbursts and twitching, they began posting videos to YouTube to discuss the mystery illness befalling their town. Soon after, more students began exhibiting similar symptoms, and at least one researcher thinks the spread was facilitated by the use of social media. University at Buffalo neurology professor Dr. David Lichter told WKBW: "I think you do have the potential for people going online and witnessing other students' behavior, then I think this medium has the potential to spread it beyond the immediate environment." The girls’ case has been diagnosed as conversion disorder, but if it is actually spreading via YouTube, this will be the first documented case of conversion disorder spread via video.

4. Paris Syndrome

Ah, the City of Light. Everyone is model-gorgeous and well-dressed, there’s never more than a few feet between you and the nearest world-class boulangerie, and no matter where you go, there’s someone playing accordion.

Except that’s not how Paris is at all. Some unsuspecting tourists discover this the hard way, just before they experience depression, palpitations, hallucinations, dizziness, tachycardia and feelings of aggression, hostility and prejudice from others. Paris Syndrome is seen almost exclusively in Japanese tourists, a phenomenon the president of the Franco-Japanese Medical Association links to highly idealized imagery of Paris in Japanese magazines.

The most likely contributing factor is the deep language barrier; few French nationals speak Japanese, and just as few Japanese tourists speak French. And even for the few who know both languages, idiomatic phrases and casual slang contribute to greater confusion. Add in a serious difference in cultural formality, jet lag, and the cognitive dissonance of the inexplicably absent accordion music, and you have the makings of a full-on anxiety attack. The Japanese embassy has instituted a 24-hour hotline for suffering travelers, and there’s even a short documentary on YouTube.

5. Mean World Syndrome

Watching the news can be a real downer, with wars and natural disasters and violent crime dominating the top stories. It’s not exactly surprising, then, that some people might be led to believe the world is a much scarier place than it actually is.

One of the primary tenets of cultivation theory, the social theory under which Mean World Syndrome is defined, is that the more media a person is exposed to, the less like reality his or her perception of the world becomes. With long-term, cumulative exposure to news and popular media that depict a world vastly more violent and dangerous than the one in which we actually live, mass media “cultivates” a new reality in people’s minds—a mean one. The incidence of Mean World Syndrome has increased over time as access to various media forms has increased. The predominant symptom is agoraphobia, but generalized anxiety and interpersonal relationship and trust issues seem to also be related.

The three-statement Mean World Index is used to map a person’s perceptions of the real world against those who consume more or less television (or other media) by rating the statements on a false/sometimes/true scale:

Most people are just looking out for themselves
*
You can’t be too careful when dealing with people.
*
Most people would take advantage of you if they had the chance.

Careful and repeated studies show that those who watch more TV are more likely to report that people can’t be trusted or would be likely to turn on a friend if it served their interests.

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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images
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Pop Culture
5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0
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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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