This Is Your Brain on Meghan and Harry (According to a Psychologist)

Have you ever sat down at the end of a long, hard day and dove headfirst into an hours-long royal news binge-fest?

Maybe your favorite mode of procrastination is seeing what hairstyle Kate Middleton is trying out today. Or perhaps you find yourself lost in thought, contemplating how you and Meghan Markle would definitely bond over your postpartum journeys. Are you, perhaps, Royally Obsessed?

We reached out to clinical psychologist Dr. Donna Rockwell, who specializes in celebrity mental health and has even presented on the topic for the American Psychological Association, to ask why the British monarchy is so enchanting—particularly to an American audience. It turns out we have plenty of good reasons for fixating on this fairy tale. Here, your infatuation analyzed (aka this is your brain on Meghan and Harry).

Claire Chung

Q: From A Psychological Perspective, Why Are We So Hungry For Every Bit Of News About The Royal Family?

A: The royal family, throughout history, has commanded a sense of celebrity. There’s always been a craving for heroes or idols or things to worship. All the rest of us are commoners, and they represent an ideal. Only through the window of their lives can we witness such lavishness or the high end of living. That’s as close as we can get. We live vicariously through them. The fact that Harry married an American really brings it down to a level where the possibility exists that we could live this life.

It’s fascinating to watch her fashion selections, her shoe choice, to see her wear the jewelry of Diana. Which also speaks to the Diana theme. There was just something about the authenticity of Princess Diana, and I think also of Meghan Markle—both of them speaking authentically about their emotional lives and experiences. They were and are the real deal, so we definitely relate to that. With Meghan and Harry deciding there was too much negative attention and wanting to pull back and have an actual real, authentic life, we connect to them even more because we see that they are choosing each other. He wants to protect Meghan from the fate that befell his own mother. The one thing he wants to do in his life is protect his family. And we embrace him even further for wanting to make a go of it.

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Q: We All Experience Tragedy In Our Own Lives. When We Saw What Harry Went Through As A Child, Did We All Collectively Take Him In, Psychologically-speaking, As ‘our Child’? Is That Why We’re So Invested In His Happiness?

A: Yes, I think we all did take Harry on as our child. I’ll never forget the image of him walking down the street at his mother’s funeral, with that suit on, looking down at the ground, with that cute red hair. It was heartbreaking.

And yes, once we experience something neurologically, in our brains, it doesn’t go away; it gets stored. So we relive the event. I think we are reliving the loss of Diana, and Harry’s bereft spirit during that time. And this informs our empathy for him and for his family.

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Q: So Witnessing Harry’s Grief Has Cemented Him In Our Consciousness? Is That What Makes His ‘storyline’ So Riveting?

A: Yes. The reason we retain negative neurological data more readily than positive data is because it’s part of the evolutionary edict to stay alive—the imperative to maintain our existence. If we remember negative things, we can avoid them later. If we burn our hand on the stove, for example, we’re going to remember that vividly, so we don’t burn our hand again. We are biologically wired to retain negative memories and make light of positive ones.

So we do retain that emotion of having grieved with Harry, for Harry. And we do have a greater investment in him. Even his facial expressions, we are more primed physiologically to acknowledge, to bear witness to, to take in, to analyze, because we are invested in him. We were emotionally invested in his mother. She was just transcendent in her expression of empathy. There was a lot of regard for her and we still hold that regard for her son.

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Q: What Do We As Fans Get Out Of This? Does Obsessing Over The Royals Distract Us From The Difficulties In Our Own Lives? Or Does It Make Us Feel Less Alone Because We See Someone Publicly Going Through Hard Times Or Making Complicated Choices?

A: I think that’s all true. And it’s a good thing because it humanizes everyone and says everyone has the same human experiences, whether you’re rich or poor or whatever your body size may be. We all have struggles. We all feel isolation. We all want to feel part of a community. We all want to have a sense of privacy for our families. We all want to excel at what we’re good at. We all want people to like us. And we are all driven by the need to know that our life had meaning in some way.

Q: Do We Project Our Problems And Desires Onto The Royals, Whether It’s Friction With Family Or The Shift In Identity After Children Or The Longing For A Great Love Affair?

A: Part of what we use celebrities for is so that we can practice and rehearse and process our own life experiences and come to understand them better. We are intelligent beings. We’re using this thing for a reason. It’s not just escapism. It’s a way to reexamine our own lives. And it’s very therapeutic for us to be able to do that.

So yes, in looking at Harry and Meghan, even the trouble at the wedding, with Meghan’s father not being able to come, the dramatic point, we can come up with new understandings of our own lives.

In the same way, Jennifer Aniston is our jilted self. And then we look at Brad Pitt grabbing her wrist and our adrenaline starts flowing. The emotional part of our brain gets turned on and we’re filled with hope and excitement, like, “Oh, love doesn’t die!” And that’s part of this Meghan and Harry thing too; they’re choosing love. And at least for us on this side of the pond, that’s a beautiful love story.