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What are delusions?

In the astonishing story of the Glass Delusion, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips explores the psychiatric phenomenon in which people believe their bodies are slowly turning into glass.

Delusions involving external phenomenon have to have some basis in previous experience. The Glass Delusion began in the seventeenth century, when glass making techniques were developing and people would have had access to it. Once the use of electricity became common, delusions that electrical waves were entering sufferers’ heads began to occur.

Some transient psychological disorders can alter the way a person views their own body, and alien hand syndrome and apotemnophilia share similar roots with the Glass Delusion, in that people believe their body is changing against their own will. In apotemnophilia the person has an overwhelming desire to amputate healthy parts of their body after viewing them as unhealthy or undesirable in some way, and alien hand syndrome occurs when sufferers believe that one hand is acting of its own accord, and is possessed by an external spirit.

Physical places can also trigger delusions. One of the more unusual transient psychological disorders is Paris syndrome, which primarily affects Japanese tourists visiting Paris. People with the condition find themselves hallucinating, enduring panic attacks and feelings of persecution. The problem, which is viewed as a severe form of culture shock caused by Japanese people having an overly romanticised notion of Paris which is not matched by reality, has reached such an extent that the Japanese embassy in Paris runs a 24 hour helpline to help those who find themselves afflicted. The embassy estimates around 12 people a year suffer from the disorder.

Similarly, hospitals in Florence, Italy, are accustomed to treating tourists diagnosed with Stendhal syndrome, which manifests in dizziness, fainting and an irregular heartbeat caused by becoming overwhelmed by Florence’s artworks.

Psychiatrists believe that as our reliance on technology increases, the world of psychiatry will see more people believing that they are being watched, monitored, unwittingly performing or tracked. Perhaps our own, 21st century version, of the Glass Delusion.