The Arts

Med students learn psychopathology with ‘Seinfeld’

(Feature image: Still of Julia Louis-Dreyfus in NBC’s Seinfeld)

By Billy Wright

It seems the whole universe truly is against George Costanza. Jerry, Elaine, his Mother and that girl who saw him in the Henry VIII costume have each tried to coax George into psychiatric treatment, yet he resists. But resistance is futile, transcendentally, when psychiatric analysis is conducted beyond the fourth wall of the Seinfeld universe.

In New Brunswick, N.J., teams of medical students are working ‘round the clock thinking about him, having conferences, observing him—“like the way they did with the Elephant Man”.

At Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, students are learning about psychiatric disorders through the means of the “Psy-feld” program, reports.

At 6pm on Monday and Thursday nights, third and fourth year med students tune into the 90’s American sitcom, Seinfeld. Come morning, they hunch over the conference table and discuss the various psychopathologies exhibited in last night’s episode. Jerry, George, Elaine and the “schizoid” Cosmo Kramer and laid on the couch and dissected.

“You have a very diverse group of personality traits that are maladaptive on the individual level,” says Dr. Anthony Tobia, an associate professor of psychiatry and the father of Psy-feld. “When you get these friends together the dynamic is such that it literally creates a plot: Jerry’s obsessive compulsive traits combined with Kramer’s schizoid traits, with Elaine’s inability to forge meaningful relationships and with George being egocentric.”

Student Marlene Wang says that Psy-feld provides more practical and relatable examples of psychopathology than the textbooks.

“In this way, it just gives you a more solid picture of the pathology rather than just giving you words,” Wang said.

Tobia says that his interest in anatomising the psyche of fictional characters was aroused back when he worked with psychiatrist Don Fidler, at the West Virginia University School of Medicine.

“Don would have us back to his house for a movie club. I’ll never forget watching Aliens and his remarkable discussion of the movie in the context of sibling rivalry: Sigourney Weaver’s destruction of the eggs of an alien beast as parallel to a child’s psychoanalytical wish to climb into his pregnant mother and destroy the fetus.”

Inspired by a ravaged alien womb, Tobias has since compiled a database of all 180 Seinfeld episodes. It’s his view that every episode has teaching points and just about every character across the series could be psycho-pathologically profiled.

Indeed, if there was something more to the ‘show about nothing,’ would it not be an address of those dark and hidden traits harboured by us all?

While George is neurotic and obsessive, Jerry smiles back with his aloof delectation. Elaine is egotistical and indifferent to the misfortunes of lowly others. And Kramer is Kramer.

They are cynical and selfish and they flounder helplessly in their world about nothing.

“I can’t spend the rest of my life coming into this stinking apartment every ten minutes to pore over the excruciating minutia of every single daily event.”

– Elaine, in “The Bizarro Jerry

But she does. As do we all, in some way.

So George, when you look out across the ocean, perhaps the thought occurs that your life is but the fictional embodiment of modern-day urban angst? Perhaps when you lie in bed, restless, sleepless (yet master of your domain), there is some paranoid part of you that suspects it. Is my life predetermined? Am I bound to a metaphysical scripture of bad luck, dissatisfaction and baldness?

Are my thoughts and actions under the weekly scrutiny of otherworldly observers?

Kudos to Psy-feld, they are now.

NBC’s Seinfeld season 9, episode 9 – “The Apology”

For an academic paper written by Dr. Tobia analysing the psychology of Elaine’s ex-boyfriends, go here.

For an interesting spool of the psychological references in Seinfeld, see this.

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