Harry Potter, Psychology and Scientific Inquiry

The Harry Potter series is more than a simple collection of books and films.  It is an enterprise that has accrued an estimated $21 billion from book sales, box office tickets, and merchandise.1 With over 450 million copies in print,2 J.K. Rowling’s writings have had a significant cultural impact on fans spanning various age groups, nationalities, and backgrounds.

Academia is not immune to such an impact. College campuses, such as that of the University of Chicago, are often compared to the Hogwarts wizarding school.3 Scholars also treat the Harry Potter series as a cultural phenomenon worthy of serious academic inquiry.4 In fact, a search of the “Harry Potter” phrase in PubMed, a life sciences and biomedical reference database, yields 31 results.

At first glance, it seems unlikely that a scholar would be able to glean any insight into the sciences and medicine through an analysis of fiction. For a discipline that mostly relies on systematic inquiry based on empirical evidence, consulting the fantasy world of J.K. Rowling seems silly. After all, it is likely that Rowling did not intend for her stories to convey medical or psychoanalytical insight. It seems unlikely, then, that scholars can develop practical conclusions from an analysis of her work or that the academic literature on the subject would show them. However, I argue that while some of the academic literature on Harry Potter and its intersection with science does not seem to present pragmatic conclusions, other scholars demonstrate plausible ways in which the series has presented new approaches to science and medicine.

I begin with an example of a scholar who did not conclude his deep, analytical exploration of the fantasy world with a return to reality. In “The Deathly Hallows: Harry Potter and Adolescent Development”, Rosegrant begins with the suggestion that the widespread “devotion” to the series results from the way the readers resonate with the books’ treatment of psychological issues. To analyze these phenomena within the text, Rosegrant dissects the development of the teenage characters within the novels, particularly through a Freudian reading.5 But without a discussion of the article’s implications in the field of psychoanalysis, Rosegrant’s observations remain largely internal to the novels. The lack of empirical evidence to support the premise that devotion to the series correlates with the readers’ resonance with psychological phenomena immediately calls the practicality of the entire article into question. Indeed, by stating that his goal is merely “to better understand the Harry Potter books, and at the same time to explore the books in order to better understand the themes”,5 it becomes less likely that his conclusions can have any implications in more general settings.

Another article, written by Sheftell, Steiner, and Thomas, is similarly grounded in the fictional world, but at least attempts to suggest practical applications of its findings. In “Harry Potter and the Curse of Headache”, the authors review the nature of and classify Harry’s headaches. While the authors were able to diagnose Harry with a “possible migraine”, their conclusion, “That even a young male Wizard has recurrent disabling headache is a reflection of the wider problem of headache in children and adolescents,”6 seems unsubstantiated. Rowling could have easily given Harry frequent migraines for reasons other than wanting to call attention to a medical problem faced in the real world. Although the authors subsequently suggest using Harry Potter as a tool for further research and education, they close their article without an explanation of the unique role that Rowling’s work plays in these fields.

This doesn’t mean that Harry Potter has no practical insights into science or medicine, however. Gabriel and Young showed that people who read Harry Potter, to satisfy a desire to belong to groups, are more likely to associate themselves with wizards. More precisely, they tested the narrative collection-assimilation hypothesis, which posits that reading a narrative causes one to psychologically become part of the community described within the narrative. Moreover, not only do they demonstrate that readers do more that simply immerse themselves into the fantasy world, but they also show that readers acquire a social connection, “the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment.”7

And indeed, that sense of social connection one gets from this so-called “narrative collection assimilation” seems to manifest itself in Colman Noctor’s psycotherapeutic work with children and adolescents. A clinical nurse manager, Noctor used the Harry Potter series to encourage youth to speak more about themselves during therapy sessions. Not only did the children immerse themselves in the texts, but they also found power in reading the texts in ways that helped them to make sense of the real world. By sympathizing with the sense of hopelessness, lack of parental guidance, and a poor sense of self found throughout the novels, the children found the courage to talk about their fears, thoughts, and aspirations.8

Harry Potter has therefore manifested itself as a unique medium through which humans interact and uplift each other. When scientists perform literary analyses of Harry Potter, they do so not primarily to study the real world as it is right now. Rather, they do so to study how the readers interact with the series and how the series promotes new ways of approaching the world. In the words of Appelbaum, “It is especially important to learn from people how they ‘use’ popular culture resources to make sense of their lives, their culture, and their fear and fantasies, and through such mediation, to construct new modes of meaning.”9

Has Harry Potter caused a change, however small, to the way we think about science and medicine? If anything, Gabriel and Young have shown us that the series calls attention to topics that have not been sufficiently explored by academia. Much of the prevailing research on the psychological need to belong has focused on relational bonds between people. Gabriel and Young feel that an equally robust inquiry into group identity is needed, suggesting that their analysis of readers’ assimilation within the Harry Potter world adds to our understanding of other group identities, such as ethnic affiliation and school loyalty.7

References

 

  1. David Lieberman, “Harry Potter Inc: Warner Bros’ $21B Empire,” Deadline New York, last modified July 13, 2011, http://www.deadline.com/2011/07/harry-potter-inc-warner-bros-21b-empire/
  2. Associated Press, “Rowling Looking Into Harry Potter E-Books,” ABC News, last modified April 4, 2011, http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/wireStory?id=13292040
  3. Katherine L. Cohen, “Dr. Kat’s List: 5 Campuses if you want the Harry Potter Experience,” ApplyWise, last modified 2008, http://applywise.com/jul09_harry_potter.aspx
  4. William Weir, “Harry Potter and the Well of Medical Research,” Chicago Tribune, last modified July 20, 2011, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-07-20/news/ct-x-0720-harry-potter-research-20110720_1_harry-potter-young-wizard-hogwarts
  5. John Rosegrant, “The Deathly Hallows: Harry Potter and Adolescent Development,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 57, no. 6 (2009): 1401-1423.
  6. Fred Sheftell, Timothy J. Steiner, and Hallie Thomas, “Harry Potter and the Curse of Headache,” Headache 47, no. 6 (2007): 911-916.
  7. Shira Gabriel and Ariana F. Young, “Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective-Assimilation Hypothesis,” Psychological Science 22, no. 8 (2011): 990-994
  8. Colman Noctor, “Putting Harry Potter on the Couch,” Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 11, no. 4 (2006): 579-589
  9. Peter Appelbaum, “Harry Potter’s World: Magic, Technoculture, and Becoming Human,” in Harry Potter’s World, ed. Elizabeth E. Heilman (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003), 25-51
  10. woodleywonderworks. “Harry Potter, by latern [sic] light,” flickr, last modified August 16, 2009, http://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/3894200418/
  11. Skiff, Eric. “Reading on the subway,” flickr, taken on July 20, 2001, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ericskiff/864347555/

Edgar Pal is a second-year student at the University of Chicago majoring in economics and public policy, and is the Editor-in-Chief of the University of Chicago chapter of The Triple Helix Online. He is also the author of Harry Potter: Why Do Muggles Hate Magic?. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter. Join us on Facebook.