(Note: Spoilers Ahead for Game of Thrones fans)
Don’t feel entirely guilty for not knowing who Lorna Wing was. Wing, who was 85, was the founder of the National Autistic Society and the inventor of the term “Asperger’s Syndrome” (not, as many are mistaken, Hans Asperger). Having an autistic daughter herself, she devoted her life to understanding the disorder, popularizing the notion that autism exists as a spectrum instead of as a finite point. Her 1981 paper Asperger Syndrome: A Clinical Account, remains one of the most thorough analyses of ASD, setting what would be the diagnostic establishment for autism. While her accomplishments are of innumerable benefits to society, especially families dealing with autism, Wing was obscure as a public figure, netting no magazine covers or Top Trending status.
She passed away on Friday, June 6. Five days prior, millions of American households watched Oberyn Martell have his life struck from him in dramatic fashion. Martell, Prince to the Dornish throne, was struck down in a duel with Ser Gregor Clegane. Often known as “The Red Viper”, Martell was simultaneously championing the supposedly-regicidal Tyrion Lannister whilst also seeking vengeance for the plunder and murder of his younger sister, Elia, when Clegane confessed to the murder while crushing Oberyn’s skull.
The difference between the Prince of Dorne and the founder of the National Autistic Society is pretty clear; one is a very fictional person from a very fictional world, and one is a hero of medicine and psychology. One was curated by the deliciously-twisted mind of George R. R. Martin, and the other was born, had children, then died.
Yet asking why millions mourned Martell and not Wing is also an obvious question: they didn’t know Wing. Despite having the advantage of actually existing, Lorna Wing did not have a chance of being nearly as famous as Martell. We watched (or read of) Martell’s whoring, his dalliances, his eight bastard daughters. We watched him fight for a character, Tyrion, whom we’ve known far longer and cared for even more, as well as in the defense of the honor of his sister. Protecting two innocents in a literal trial-by-combat, watching him die in such brutal and shocking fashion had an emotional toll.
Game of Thrones and the A Song of Ice and Fire novels are the perfect venue to learn how we connect with and mourn for fictional characters. Martin, the author of the fantasy series, kills characters with such flippancy and frequency the mantra “All Men Must Die” (or “valar morghulis” if you’re privy to your High Valyrian) might as well be the official slogan. You can mourn every character death (including the direwolves) at digital graveyards. The coffers of Youtube are full of “reaction videos” wherein we see people crying real tears for fake people.
And Game of Thrones is different from similarly passionate shows like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos. Walter White existed in our reality. He was a guy who drove an Aztec with a missing hubcap and worried about his medical debt. Danaerys Targaryen doesn’t exist in anything like our reality. Arya Stark doesn’t know what a middle school is, but there we are, rooting for this 12-year-old to murder.
So where do our feelings toward fictional characters blend with our feelings toward real humans? We say we mourned Oberyn Martell more than Lorna Wing because we knew Martell more. How do we “know” a fictional character?
Sociologists and Malcolm Gladwell-types will be familiar with Dunbar’s number. Based on research he did in the early 1990s, anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed the theory that human’s are limited by their brain capacity in how many social connections they can usefully make. Studying how social connections are processed in the “orbitomedial prefrontal cortex” of the brain, Dunbar concluded the “mean group size” of any average human is 148.
What that means is the average person can only make and maintain 148 social connections, be they friends, family, co-workers, teachers, or your dentist. Sure, you can certainly know of more people (as your Facebook friend list may tell you), but in total the average limit of people you can truly know is set at 148.
In fact, Dunbar has updated his research in this area to include the world of social networks, wherein it’s not so odd to have well over 500 “friends”. He found what most of us already knew: Your friend count is pointless vanity. In fact, since the average adult Facebook user has over 300 friends, over half of your connections on Facebook are pointless.
Does this neurological limitation extend to how we feel about fictional characters? It’s hard to say. In a Cornell study from 2012 on the social networks of mythological characters, two researchers built a theory for determining whether a storyline about characters was based on real events or not (simply by analyzing how the characters interact and whether it mirrors how real human connections behave). So while there is validity in relating how humans interact to how fictional beings interact, it’s difficult to say what happens between the two worlds.
In her book apty titled Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?, Brit-lit scholar Blakey Vermuele posits that we might actually learn more about fictional characters than we do the people around us. Because of the narrative focus of certain books, we get a front-row seat to another person’s psyche when we read a novel; something you may never get from your 148. This is also why reading fiction can make you more empathetic.
When a personal connection is driven into you by an author’s sheer force of will, it’s emulating how you would feel if these characters were real. But does emulation equal reality when it comes to your prefrontal cortex? Does the social part of your brain prepare you for human relation with figments of someone else’s imagination, or does it merely think books are training for the real deal?
The core part that’s missing, of course, is that Oberyn Martell never knew you. Because you only know of Oberyn Martell or Lorna Wing or whoever the next big celebrity death is from a viewpoint of consumption, it is not a social function. While they can change you, you can never change fictional characters. It’s this void that fan-fiction aims to fill. Even in the most interactive video games, there is very little a player can do to change the intents and attitudes of the characters around him (should probably say that I’ve never played Heavy Rain but my understanding is you can effect events and not characters). So even when we become a character in the storyline, we’re still short from it becoming a social experience–the necessary requirement for that prefrontal cortex activity that would drive you towards your 148 limit.