Back by popular demand, the Psychology in Cult TV Panel was back at WonderCon this year and we got a front row seat. In case you’ve ever wondered whether the TV shows you watched were benefiting you psychologically, we’re here to reveal what moderator Jenna Busch (Legion of Leia), Dr. Travis Langley (Batman and Psychology, The Walking Dead Psychology) Dr. Janina Scarlet (Clinical Psychologist, Superhero Therapy), Alan Kistler (Doctor Who: A History, Walking Dead Psychology), Dr. Billy San Juan (Psychosocial Rehabilitation Specialist, The Walking Dead Psychology), and Travis Richey (Inspector Space Time) had to say on the subject.
After introducing themselves and revealing their favorite cult television shows, Jenna hit the panelists with their first question: what are the psychological benefits of watching television? While one panelist joked, “TV Good. No TV bad,” Dr. Janina elaborated on why exactly it is good. According to her, the benefit of watching television is that the characters you see on the screen week after week (or maybe all day if you binge-watch) give us someone to relate to when we’re feeling like there’s nobody out there who understands us. Connecting with these characters, one of the panelists explains, can also help people learn to empathize as well. This one may sound like a no-brainer, but what most people don’t realize is that witnessing people who are in certain situations helps people get a better understanding of sensitive topics.
Dr. Janina backs up this thesis by bringing up a particular research study that revealed people who identify with certain fictional characters are more likely to empathize with diverse groups. In the mentioned study, a group of Italian researchers took half of a group of high school students and gave them a sensitive passage from one of the Harry Potter books where the character Hermione is getting harassed for being a muggle-born and gave the other half a neutral passage where Harry and co. were just having fun. Once they finished reading, all of the teen’s attitudes were measured towards the LGBT population, immigrants and refugees. What the study found was that the kids who read the section where Hermione was being persecuted, were more sympathetic towards stigmatized people than others who read the neutral passage. What this essentially means is that if people are subjected to a television show that allows them to connect with a character that is going through a certain experience, they are more empathetic towards people who are going through that same experience.
After Dr. Janina discussed a similar study she is working called “The Doctor Who Study”, moderator Jenna Busch segued into a topic a lot of Whovians have been puzzled about: What the heck is going on with the Twelfth Doctor and why did his personality change so drastically? Dr. Travis Langley explained that one of the issues this doctor is struggling with is the inability to recognize faces–which is a very real cognitive disorder known as Prosopagnosia. To top it all off, his companion Clara doesn’t recognize him–thanks to the fact that Doctors reincarnate in a different body every time–and that is extremely difficult on him. This is something, they point out, people who go through facial reconstruction go through when their loved ones have a hard time recognizing them after the transition.
While there are still several layers to peel back on the Twelfth Docto, Jenna interrupts the conversation to introduce the audience to the panel’s special guest, Maurice LaMarche (AKA the voice of Brain in Pinky and the Brain, the King from Frozen, tons of people from Futurama etc). The group then got back onto the topic of connecting to characters particularly for therapy purposes. I know what you’re wondering: watching television can be considered therapy? The answer here is a resounding yes. Dr. Janina elaborates that ex-soldiers with PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder) in particular have been able to connect to shows like The Walking Dead because it is the closest thing they have to their experiences in war. Often times when they come back from active duty, they have a hard time slipping back into everyday life and connecting to their peers. Watching a show like The Walking Dead helps them fell like they have somebody to relate to.
Speaking of PTSD, the panel dives into The Legend of Korra animated series to discuss the protagonist’s recent struggle with the disorder. After going through several horrific experiences, she changes her appearance, freezes up, suffers from from flashbacks, and is pretty much fighting just to get her aggression out. She also won’t talk to people and closes up, which the panelists point out is a pretty good depiction of the disorder. We see Korra struggle with the affliction but ultimately come to terms with it and start the healing process. She comes full circle and starts to get better, which is a beautiful process to see in any form of media.
If we learned anything from this panel, it’s that one of the great things about television seems to be that it gives us characters to connect to emotionally by depicting somebody who is either in a similar situation or is in one we don’t quite understand. These connections both make us feel like we are not alone and helps us understand what others may be going through.
So what did you think of the ideas discussed in the panel? Is there a certain TV character you’ve connected to more than any other? Let us know in the comments below.