I use fictional stories in general, and superhero characters and stories in particular, to illustrate what psychological research about human nature has revealed. I know, and you know, that superheroes aren't real. But good superheroes stories, like any good fiction, invite us to enter a different world. The physical trappings of that world may or not resemble ours, but for us to enter it, its psychological trappings have to resemble ours. We will, almost automatically when a story is good, try to understand the psychology of the characters: their motives, their emotions, their thoughts, their behavior. We put ourselves in their places, or at least in their worlds, or imagine what it be like if they lived in ours. We wonder what would be like to live their experiences. We know they're not real, but it's fun to imagine.
Most recently, I've used the character of Batman to explore the topic of mental health and mental illness. When I give talks about superheroes, invariably at least one person in the audience asks me what the matter is with Batman. To address this question, I'm going to discuss Batman's mental health as if he were real. But by discussing him as if he were, we get to tackle some interesting issues. (Which version of Batman am I talking about, you may wonder? An amalgam of comic book and film versions.)
On the eve of the release of A Dark Knight Rises, I'm going to consider whether Batman has posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the psychiatric disorder that most people may think a likely diagnosis for Batman. Using the criteria for the PTSD in the current edition of the "psychiatric bible" known as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th edition (DSM-IV-TR), PTSD symptoms fall into four categories. First, the person has to experience a traumatic event to which he or she (Batman in this case) responds with fear, helplessness, or terror. Bruce Wayne witnessed the murder of his parents, and his own life was in jeopardy and he was clearly afraid and helpless, so he clearly meets this criterion. Second, the person tries to avoid stimuli associated with the trauma; this is not true of Batman -- he leaps into dark alleys and in front of guns. Alternatively, the person may develop a kind of emotional numbing, such as a sense of detachment from others or a limited range of emotions. Hmm... Okay, maybe this symptom applies to him, too.
Third, Batman would need to have symptoms of increased arousal: trouble sleeping (not because he can't find enough hours in which to sleep because of his day and night jobs and dual identities), irritability or outbursts of anger (Batman doesn't have this any more than is appropriate to the situation), difficulty concentrating (the Caped Crusader has fantastic powers of concentration unless he's had a concussion or been drugged), an exaggerated startle response (as occurs in people who practically leap in the air when you surprise them), or hypervigilance, which is being constantly on guard. Yup, Batman is hypervigilant, but so are police officers and military personnel -- it's part of the training, not necessarily part of PTSD per se. Being lenient, though I'll say he's got symptoms in three out of the three categories discussed so far.
Fourth, the traumatic event has to be persistently re-experienced through nightmares, flashbacks, or recollections, or else the person is significantly distressed by or reactive to stimuli related to the trauma. In Batman's case, he occasionally has nightmares or recollections about his parents' murders, but this type of re-experiencing isn't persistent. Similarly, Batman isn't easily distressed by or reactive to stimuli related to that trauma. He's okay around guns, dark alleys, or criminals. This set of symptoms doesn't seem to apply. Moreover, for the diagnosis of PTSD, the symptoms (which must last more than one month) must cause significant distress or impair functioning. This is certainly not true of Batman. He functions at an incredibly high level. (For more information about PTSD, click here. For the full criteria for PTSD, click here [click on the "DSM-IV" tab], and to read about possible changes to the criteria in the next edition of DSM due out in 2013 [DSM-5], click on the "Proposed Revision" tab on the same webpage.)
However, once The Dark Knight Rises is out, we shall see whether Batman's battles with Bane and the rest of Gotham's criminal element lead him to develop PTSD or some other psychological disorder.
Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist, author of What's the Matter with Batman? An Unauthorized Clinical Look Under the Mask of the Caped Crusader, and co-author of Abnormal Psychology.
Copyright 2012 by Robin S. Rosenberg
For more by Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D., click here.
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