The McGill brothers who wrote the book on delusions

Ian and Joel Gold, the sons of a legendary McGill medical professor, have made their own mark as the co-authors of a book on delusions thanks to their passion for philosophy and psychiatry – and a Jim Carrey movie.

Story by Andrew Mahon

January 2021

Their shared Twitter handle is @ThinkVsShrink, their inspirational heroes include Freud, Jung, and Henri and Rocket Richard (another pair of productive brothers), and together they wrote a book which neatly captures the zeitgeist of a society racked by a new generation of neuroses.

Meet Joel and Ian Gold.

Their brotherly passion for psychiatry is eerily reminiscent of TV’s famous sitcom siblings Niles and Frasier Crane, from the 90s TV show Frasier. However, unlike the fictitious Cranes, the Golds are real-life, accomplished experts in the psychiatric field whose backstories started at McGill.

As the sons of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences’ renowned Dr. Phil Gold, BSc’57, MDCM’61, MSc’61, PhD’65, McGill was certainly top of mind for the Golds, beginning with older brother Ian who gravitated towards the study of philosophy.

“Philosophy is an unusual discipline,” says Ian, BA’84, MA’87. “Unlike most disciplines you don’t start by building up a body of knowledge. Philosophy is about debate and you can jump in anywhere and start thinking about things.”

After graduating from McGill, Ian pursued his studies in the U.S. and then Australia where he taught at Monash University in Melbourne and experienced one of those “aha” moments. He attended a presentation by a neuropsychiatrist about a man whose only behavioural anomaly was the fact that he believed his reflection in the mirror was an uncommunicative stranger.

“Here was this pathology of belief that seemed to explode all the normal features of belief,” recalls Ian. “This just got me so interested that I thought I must pursue this.”

Ian’s interest in delusions eventually led to his return to McGill where he is now a professor of philosophy, cross-appointed to the Department of Psychiatry.

“You cannot dissociate psychiatric disorders from an understanding of the nature of human beings in their social and cultural environment,” he says. “In that sense it’s inevitably something that’s connected to philosophy.”

Meanwhile, younger brother Joel, MDCM’95, took a different path to psychiatry, first earning his undergraduate degree in neuroscience at Brown University in Rhode Island before being accepted to McGill’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, and on track to becoming a neurologist.

While doing his psychiatry rotation at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, one of his teachers was impressed with Joel’s rapport with patients and told him he had a facility for psychiatry. Eventually that led Joel away from neuroscience and into a career in psychiatry, completing his residency at Manhattan’s famed Bellevue Hospital Center, where he worked for 14 years.

It was while at Bellevue that Joel noticed a series of unusual cases of patients who believed they were being watched and filmed, and that the films were being broadcast to an audience. It was a phenomenon which was similar to the premise of a Jim Carrey movie called, The Truman Show.

While visiting his family in Montreal, Joel casually mentioned these Truman Show patients to Ian. Ian, whose work focused on delusions, did some digging and found nothing about this novel phenomenon but he was intrigued.

“That’s really how the collaboration began.” recalls Ian. “It began as an attempt to start thinking about delusions and psychosis more broadly.”

Then, one evening, Joel was having dinner with some friends and the topic of his Truman Show patients came up. One of the guests happened to be a reporter for the National Post and he decided to write a story about the subject.

“To my surprise it became a front-page story,” says Joel. “Then we got this huge influx of inquiries from around the world and after a while Ian and I thought, maybe we should write a book.”

The co-authored book had the Elvis Presley-ish title, Suspicious Minds: How Culture Shapes Madness. In the book, the Golds highlight the role that culture plays in the development of psychosis – particularly delusions. They argue that delusions are the result of the interaction between the brain and the social world.

For a while, the Truman Show Delusion was a media sensation featured in publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times. Joel was even interviewed by famed U.S. public radio host Ira Glass whose show, This American Life, devoted an entire episode to delusions.

These days both Golds remain extremely busy on their respective sides of the Canada/U.S. border. Joel now has a private practice in Manhattan. He is also a consulting psychiatrist for the NHL/NHLPA’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health program, a role which combines his professional expertise with his love of hockey.

“Helping to support the players’ well-being and offering assistance when any mental health issues arise has been very gratifying for me,” says Joel, who was one of the mental health professionals who checked in with the hockey players in the pandemic “bubble” for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Meanwhile, at McGill, Ian continues to teach philosophy and collaborate with colleagues at the Department of Psychiatry. He was recently part of the search committee for the Faculty of Arts’ new Stephen Jarislowsky Chair in Technology and Human Nature. As for future plans, he is contemplating another book (ideally co-authored with Joel) about conspiracy theories, a disturbingly relevant subject given recent U.S. political events.

“Look what people believe,” says Ian. “Millions of people believe that there a cabal of Satan- worshipping pedophiles running a deep state. I’m interested in writing a book about what makes conspiracy theories tick and how they’re different from delusions.”

As they look back at their time at McGill, both brothers point to mentors as vitally important in their University experience and their trajectories in life. For Joel, it was Dr. René Tirol at the Douglas, who encouraged Joel’s interest in psychiatry. For Ian, it was Emeritus Philosophy Professor James McGilvray, a constant influence throughout his grad school years and beyond.

For both brothers McGill remains a unique moment in time, both personally and professionally.

“I recently had my 25th anniversary class reunion,” says Joel. “It was great seeing so many of my classmates. Many said their years at McGill were best years of their lives.” 

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