StarTalk: Neil deGrasse Tyson on Game of Thrones Psychology

Astrophysicist asks about the psychology of Game of Thrones characters and fans.

Posted Feb 03, 2017

StarTalk, original screen capture by Travis langley.
Left to right on stage: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (looking at a copy of the book Game of Thrones Psychology: The Mind is Dark and Full of Terrors); comedian Michael Ian Black; The Science of Game of Thrones author Helen Keen. On screen in background: Travis Langley.
Source: StarTalk, original screen capture by Travis langley.

In an episode of StarTalk on the National Geographic Channel, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson took a scientific look at the HBO series Game of Thrones with the help of standup comic Michael Ian Black and The Science of Game of Thrones author Helen Keen, and I joined them for one segment via Skype. The title of the book that brought me into this interview, Game of Thrones Psychology: The Mind is Dark and Full of Terrors, amused Tyson.

The on-air portion of the interview starts with Tyson asking how violence affects characters on the receiving end and what effect it might have on the audience. The "why" part of his question got cut off in the version that aired. Also left out was our preceding discussion about the origins of psychopathy and the difference in how professionals apply the words psychopathy and sociopathy (which, as you may see, shaped the nature of my answer about violence).

Langley: That's complicated. There are a lot of different reasons. In real life, it can be hard to study. We know in experiments that watching violence produces short-term effects on someone's behavior, but it's hard to study in the long run. If you have an idea that "this could turn someone into a violent psychopath," it's not exactly ethical or practical to do that study.

Tyson: In fact, if you look in the military, of course, some people would suffer from PTSD and others don't.

Langley: And you cannot always predict who it's going to be. 

Tyson: That's interesting because if you could predict, that would be an amazing advance in our understanding of the psychological state of warriors.

Langley: There are people who as a form of coping with horrible situations do shut down parts of themselves. We also know that traumatic brain injury, injury to areas in the frontal cortex, can shut off their empathy for other people.

Unaired: I described Sansa and Arja's path of posttraumatic growth, ways in which individuals deeply affected by trauma might draw upon that to make meaning out of it and grow as human beings.

Tyson: Okay, tell me about the psychology of revenge. This is a recurring theme in Game of Thrones and I have to confess that revenge, you know that feels good. So it's got to be something deep inside of us.

Langley: We want to feel power—power over our own lives or others—and when we feel mistreated, when something has happened that made us feel helpless, it's hard to maintain a sense of feeling strong. Revenge is one way of feeling we've restored a sense of balance, of justice in the world, and a sense of power for ourselves.

Unaired: Sansa and Arja came up again because each has gotten some revenge in the final episodes of the most recent season.

Tyson: So if that is something fundamental within us and you have a clever screenwriter, storyteller, cinematographer, they would portray this and that would resonate deeply within us, and we want to see more, presumably.

Some aired, some not: Tyson brought up the existence of dragons in the stories. He raised the topic repeatedly throughout the evening as they recorded the entire episode. By his own admission, he did not watch the show. Before I joined the discussion, Tyson, Black, and Keen had discussed how many limbs a dragon should have in order to be evolutionarily logical (two legs and two wings with no forearms). I had begun my conversation with them by pulling my Funko Pop Game of Thrones dragon off a shelf to point out: "Two legs, two wings, no arms." Later we came back to the issue of dragons.

Langley: I've always said I really think Game of Thrones is so popular because of the psychology of the characters. Its not about the dragons, the White Walkers, or the magic. It's about the human beings. They hadn't had dragons in a long time [before the first season or book, that is]. For most of them, their concern about dragons is over the idea of dragons. Ideas affect their whole lives. 

Unaired: Our last topic was the character Hodor's expressive aphasia, his inability to produce words other than "Hodor" (which is not really his name) due to brain injury. Even if a recently revealed event was what determined the specific word he would be stuck with for most of his life, both his head wound and the pattern of his symptoms indicate that brain injury caused the original problem. I pointed out that the location of his injury is in the correct location but on the opposite side of the head from what we would normally expect, however some people do have brain lateralization organized in a way that mirrors that seen in most people—which means the head wound is still consistent with injury-induced aphasia.

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