The Psychology of ‘Doctor Who’

It is fair to say that I have two great obsessions in my life. Doctor Who and Psychology. The following blog post is the strange hybrid child of my two passions – the centre of the Venn diagram of my two favourite things. So be prepared for a neuropsychology geek overload.

So as a Psychologist, what can I can deduce about the Doctor’s psychology? Although many have tried, no-one has been successful in giving the Doctor a full psych evaluation. So what can we tell from the evidence presented (all 800+ episodes).

Well let’s face it, when we look at the Doctor his physiology appears remarkably (some would say conveniently) humanoid. Unlike the Ood, the Doctor does not have to wander about holding part of his brain. And he has not yet been turned into an unemotional cyborg like the Cyberman. However, we do know that the Doctor is an alien from the far off planet of Gallifrey. Even the primitive investigations us Earthlings have managed have revealed some key physiological differences, such as the fact that the Doctor has two hearts.

But what about his brain? Is that also alien?

Well given the Doctor’s average skull size it seems fair to assume that his brain would be around the same weight (three pounds) as a typical adult male. But is it possible to tell more?
In the 19th Century, a German physician, Franz Gall came up with the idea of Phrenology. This ‘science’ suggested that we could discover a person’s personality traits and mental aptitudes simply by measuring the areas of the skull. Phrenology heads are still popular today but more as an interior designer’s accessory than as a serious scientific instrument.

Only recently have we been able to (safely) look at someone’s brain while they are still alive! Modern brain scanning techniques have given rise to an updated version of phrenology – neo-phrenology, which suggests that you can make some judgements about a person’s mental strengths and weaknesses by looking at the structure of areas of the brain.

The brain can be divided into three distinct parts, the fore-brain, mid-brain and the brain stem. Each area of the brain is responsible for a particular function. So for example, the occipital lobes (located at the back of the brain) are responsible for visual processing. So, if a brain scan revealed that someone had a malformed occipital lobe we might expect that person to have problems with their vision.

No-one so far has tried to scan the Doctor’s brain (even if a few have tried to steal it). However, we could consider the things that the Doctor is good at and then attempt some reverse engineering. For example, the Doctor has often been shown to have a superior memory; therefore, maybe we would expect the Doctor’s brain to have a better hippocampus (the structure in the mid-brain responsible for memory). The study of famous brains, such as Einstein’s, does highlight how those with superior ability can have structural differences in their brains. Einstein, for example, is reported to have had an unusual pattern of grooves (called sulci) on both right and left parietal lobes. The parietal lobes are known to be particularly important for mathematical abilities and spatial tasks. Therefore although we might assume that the Doctor’s brain is the same size as a human brain, the chances are that it is wired up quite differently.

Although the Doctor appears to have a remarkable intellect, the Doctor does show a number of very human failings which might actually remind you of a certain sub-species of human. The Doctor can be grumpy, sulky, indecisive, engage in risky behaviours which place both him and his companions in danger as well as having quite an extreme sense of fashion.


That’s right.

The Doctor’s behaviours are similar to sulky teenager and this might explain some of the poor decision-making we occasionally see. Psychologists think that the teenager’s brains have a large number of neural connections which can lead to poor judgments as they simply can’t keep track of multiple thoughts. Further, due to the sheer number of neural connections they can’t gain instant access to the critical memories and emotions needed to inform important decisions. It is possible that part of the reason that the Doctor takes risks and occasionally makes poor decisions is because he just has too many neural connections and simply can’t keep track of all of his thoughts.

We also know that when the Doctor regenerates he can shape his personality to suit his current environment. For example, the War Doctor (John Hurt) appears to have had a very different psychological make-up to other regenerations. We know that humans can also shape their brains to respond to the environment in which they find themselves. At around the age of 12 we start a process where the neural connections which are not being used die off in a process called pruning. So for example, our ability to learn languages we have not been exposed to in childhood starts to decrease. This continues through our teenage years. It could well be that the Doctor around the time of regeneration is undergoing a very extreme form of neural pruning, priming his brain for the challenges ahead.

For all of the Doctor’s differences, one way in which he is very human is in his need for companionship. The Doctor’s companions tend to be the outgoing, adventurous type who will leap into the Tardis at the drop of a hat. The Doctor’s companions are extremely loyal and offer him the emotional support he appears to need. Psychologists know that friendships are extremely important for remaining both physically and mentally healthy, with loneliness seriously impacting on our well-being. It has, however, been suggested that the Doctor may lack the empathy to care for his companions, with his companions constantly being placed in danger and some coming to a sticky end. Although it is clear that the Doctor cares for his human companions, it is not clear whether the relationship is 100% equal or whether the Doctor sees his companions more as a type of faithful pet. That is not to say that he does not care for his companions – many people love their ‘fur babies’ more than their human family! However, it does raise the interesting question as to whether, as an alien, the Doctor can ever fully understand human behaviour, just as sometimes we are at a complete loss to understand the thoughts and behaviours of our pet cat or dog.

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