Schizophrenia and the Fourth Wall

By Dr David Laing Dawson


When we sit on a couch in front of that high definition big TV screen and watch a movie or a series episode (last night it was The Shield) our human brains are uniquely equipped to maintain a foothold in two or more spheres of existence. I am aware of this planet earth, Canada, Hamilton, living room reality as I sit in my corner of the couch with its torn leather (my wife wants to replace), while she sits next to me, our dogs at our feet, ice cubes melting in my glass of bourbon, a large truck rumbling down the hill outside, while, at the same time being absorbed into a fictional version of the mean streets of Los Angeles, or a Boston Legal firm, or a colony on a distant planet. The film makers have done their best to hook me, to have me identify with at least one character, to feel sympathy for another, to experience a vicarious fear, apprehension, or pleasure in the unfolding events, to absorb my consciousness to the point I might duck from a missile, startle at a gunshot, verbally caution the hero, or shamefully experience the sweet pleasure of revenge. At the commercial break I refill my glass even while expecting to  be soon driving in a dangerous car chase.

When the car chase comes I can drive that souped-up Mustang experiencing all the chills and thrills of the experience, providing the actor portraying the driver does not speak directly to the other me on the couch, and thus break the fourth wall. At that point the illusion is shattered and I am back on the couch with its torn leather seam.

And for this reason it is a taboo for film makers and stage actors to break that fourth wall and talk directly to a member or members of the audience. Of course such a taboo encourages some to purposely do it, as in the opening sequence of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. I, vicariously, have been standing in a theatre line with Dianne Keaton when Woody puts me back on my leather couch and speaks directly to me, and then, to add more disturbance in my consciousness, brings the real (within the film that is) Marshall McLuhan out from behind a billboard to refute the annoying teacher of media studies. Marshall speaks directly to the teacher and does not break the fourth wall, except for his little grin at the end. He is in on the joke, we see. That is, his little grin tells us this filmed Marshall McLuhan is aware at the time of the film making of the camera man, the crew, and the audience beyond.

What has this to do with schizophrenia?

Well, it struck me that “breaking the fourth wall”, especially in film, highlights the amazing sensory, perceptual, and interpretive apparatus that enables the healthy human brain to retain its footing in this real world, even while vicariously experiencing another. McLuhan’s little grin, Woody’s eye movements, his tone of voice, his cadence, his choice of words, his facial expressions all allow us to distinguish one reality from another, to understand the intent of the speaker even when that speaker is playfully breaking the fourth wall. When we don’t receive the signals of a broken fourth wall we can retain the illusion, vicariously remain part of this alternate universe on the screen, while still knowing that our earthly body is sitting on the leather couch with the torn seam. And even when Woody talks directly to me I know it is really to a collective, to a large audience now and forever, and that he will fall silent when I change the channel.

And Schizophrenia?

A very common symptom of schizophrenia entails the experience of “the television is talking directly to me.” Interestingly, at least from what I have seen, this is less likely to be experienced when the news broadcaster is talking directly to the camera, and more likely in a drama when the actors are not breaking the fourth wall. And this implies that the image of a full face forward newscaster and the information being delivered is being understood in its rightful context, whereas the conversation between two characters in a TV drama may not be.

For most of us, even when fully hooked and vicariously enjoying the drama, we hear, see, and perceive the characters as unrelated to our actual presence on the leather couch. But a person with schizophrenia may not. He or she misses or misinterprets the information that signals the difference, and that normally keeps those characters within their own world. For this person suffering from schizophrenia the fourth wall, in a sense, is always broken. The words spoken in the drama become directed at him, or are interpreted as being about him.

In a psychotic relapse, with the terror of disorganization coupled with the need for order, meaning and explanation, the words coming from the TV can become part of a delusion, either as instructions, commentary or condemnations.

For some stable well-functioning people with schizophrenia, otherwise quite well, this experience can be disconcerting and best avoided. They simply don’t watch TV dramas.

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