Why Nerds Rage!

In New York City this week? Join me at the December 5th Nerd Nite! I'll be discussing the psychology of nerd rage. Here's a sneak peak: 

Nerds are awesome people. We’re advocates of science, want freedom of information, and defend the marginalized. But there’s a dark side to nerdery. Every now and then, nerds become bullies. We flood the internet with hateful comments about Ben Affleck becoming Batman, yell at people for mistaking Star Trek and Star Wars, and break controllers when noobs mess with our World of Warcraft guild. Join veteran Nerd Nite presenter Ali Mattu as he outlines his universal theory on the psychological condition of nerd rage and what can be done to stop this epidemic.

12/22/2014 Update: Below is a video of the talk.

Our Geeky New York City Bookstore Wedding

On September 27th 2014, Nhu-An and I got married. We've been together for a long time, ever since we were seniors in high school. Despite a lot of obstacles like living on opposite sides of the country for much of our relationship and the glacial pace at which I completed grad school, we've stayed together and continue to be in love.

How did our relationship last so long? We realized that we're both really big geeks, just with totally different interests. Loving something passionately and wanting to share it became the glue that kept us together year after year.

After we got engaged, we wanted to create a wedding that celebrated how important geeking out has been in our relationship. That’s why we got married in a New York City bookstore. This is how we made it so.

The Blanket Fort

For our engagement photo, we wanted to recreate a scene from one of our favorite childhood stories. But we couldn’t agree on a book. I wanted Where the Wild Things Are and Nhu-An wanted The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. We got lost talking about how much fun it would have been to hang out as kids and share our favorite books and toys with each other. That’s how the idea for our epic blanket fort was born.

The blanket fort became the theme of our wedding. We created library book card save the dates because that’s where we spent most of our time as kids (Nhu-An read The Baby-Sitters Club while I read Electronic Gaming Monthly). Our RSVPs asked guests what they would put in their blanket forts so we could weave in their geeky interests into our wedding (more on that later).

NYC’s High Line

Our wedding day started at The High Line. It’s our favorite place in the city and is where we got engaged. The High Line represents everything we love about New York — it’s a place where people of all backgrounds come together and celebrate the wonderful mishmash of old and new ideas that make up this city.

Nhu-An had a custom bouquet made out of vintage brooches. Each one was hand-selected and represented the geeky things we love about each other.

My cufflinks were a nod to my love of science fiction (I was going for an Isaac Asimov vibe).

I also asked my groomsmen to sneak in some superhero socks.

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe

We were drawn to Housing Works because they’re a cool non-profit that helps old books find new homes (a pretty nerdy endeavor). When we learned that proceeds from a wedding at their flagship bookstore would go toward fighting homelessness and AIDS, we knew this was the right venue for us.

Escort cards were in a library card catalog and featured our guests’ geeky interests. Yes, that’s a heroes and villains themed gift box.

Ceremony

Our ceremony was officiated by Ayesha Mattu. If her last name is familiar, that’s because she’s my cousin. But that’s not why we asked her to officiate — Ayesha is an eloquent speaker, a compelling writer, and the co-editor of two books about love. She’s always been a big supporter of our relationship and helped us get to this point. She was the only person we wanted beside us during our ceremony.

Our ring-bearer was my nephew (and Ayesha’s son). Yup, he’s wearing Max’s crown from Where the Wild Things Are, one of his favorite books.

Nhu-An’s bridesmaids and my groomsmen were wrapped around on the stairs that lead up to the mezzanine level of the bookstore. Guests had the option of sitting in front of the ceremony or viewing from above.

A Blanket Fort Reception

We wanted the wedding to be a blanket fort for our guests. That’s why everyone had an individualized place card with a page from their favorite book and little notes and messages scribbled in the margins from Nhu-An and me. We also seated guests based on their interests and left conversation starters for each person. We heard afterwards that some guests exchanged contact info so they could stay in touch, which was extra heart-warming.

A photo booth was set up where guests could create their own blanket fort photo. Nhu-An and I selected each and every prop based on our guests’ RSVPs so that everyone had at least one item to play with.

My nephew spent the entire evening at the photo booth, rummaging through props and mashing up characters and genres for the camera.

All the Dessert

Anyone who knows us knows we REALLY like dessert. That’s why we had all of our favorite New York City cakes and pastries at the wedding.

Nhu-An surprised me with a Star Trek and Lord of the Rings cake topper! Both stories have shaped who we’ve become, as individuals and a couple, so this meant a lot to me. Each of our avatars had little personalized touches — my favorite beverage in a lavender teacup and Nhu-An with her blue reading glasses tucked in her pocket.

To Boldly Go…

The rest of the night was spent hanging out with our closest friends and family while a beautiful jazz band played our favorite standards.

Our wedding was a bit unconventional, but the whole day ended up being exactly what we wanted — something that was true to who we are.

Vendors

Mindfulness is the Essential Psychology of the Star Wars Universe

Star Wars Complete Saga

The next phase of the biggest science fiction franchise just started with the premiere of Star Wars: Rebels. Continuing the proud tradition of the animated Star Wars: Clone Wars, this new cartoon will fill in the gaps between the prequel and original trilogy and set up 2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII.

Rebels is a triumphant return to the Galactic Empire. Fans of the original Star Wars films will find a lot to love in Rebels. There are also some fun Firefly and Guardians of the Galaxy influences sprinkled throughout the show. It’s clear that the force is strong with Disney, the new caretakers of the Star Wars universe.

Since we’re beginning a new era in a galaxy far far away, I wanted to see if it was possible to distill the entire saga down to a single psychological idea (just like I did with Star Trek). This was quite a challenge since my buddy Dr. Andrea Letamendi and I keep finding new ways of psychoanalyzing Star Wars. After rewatching the films and the best of Clone Wars, it’s clear that the essential psychology of the Star Wars universe is all about mindfulness.

“You must feel the Force around you.”

"You must feel the force around you."

Star Wars is a story about good versus evil set against the backdrop of the Skywalker family. Originally with Luke and later with Anakin, we learn that the Skywalkers are deeply attuned to the power of the Force. What exactly is the Force? Here’s how it’s described in the original Star Wars film:

Obi-Wan: The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.

While our understanding of the Force evolves with the prequel films (you know, with Midichlorians), the main idea behind it remains the same – with practice, Jedi gain a heightened awareness of the present moment, enhance their physical and mental abilities, and develop cool supernatural powers.

All the greatest moments in Star Wars involve the Force. But if you look closely, it’s not the Jedi mind tricks or Force jumps that get all the screen time. A heightened awareness of the present moment is the power we keep seeing throughout the saga. It’s how Luke destroys the Death Star, the skill Yoda emphasizes in his Jedi training, and what helps Darth Vader turn against Emperor Palpatine. In the prequels, this power helps Qui-Gon discover Anakin and is how Yoda and Obi-Wan unravel the threat of the Sith. It’s also the ability we see Ahsoka develop in Clone Wars and what we’re seeing Ezra learn in Rebels. There’s a name for this skill in psychology and it’s called mindfulness.

What is mindfulness?

Star Wars mindfulness

Mindfulness is based on an ancient Buddhist meditation that has only recently been studied by scientists. Think of mindfulness as “the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way.” It’s not just about concentration – mindfulness helps you to fully live in the present moment and accept it for what it is.

While it might sound like an abstract idea, you've probably been immersed in a moment many times in your life. People are often highly focused when they’re only doing one thing at a time (like watching Star Wars in a movie theater), doing something for the first time (constructing a new Millennium Falcon Lego set), or experiencing strong emotions (when someone tells you Star Trek is better than Star Wars).

But to achieve mindfulness, you have to ignore the stuff that takes you out of the present. That means shifting from judging a moment (“I hate the prequels”) to describing it (“The prequels are different from the films I grew up with”) and restricting emotions (“Don’t even say the words Star Wars Legends!”) to accepting them (“It’s okay to mourn the end of the Expanded Universe”).

Mindfulness will help you become a better Star Wars fan. You’ll be able to watch The Phantom Menace without cringing at the sight of Jar Jar Binks, finish building a Millennium Falcon Lego set despite the frustrating small pieces, and listen to a Trekkie's arguments against Star Wars even though you want to force choke them. It’s also good for your health. Mindfulness improves memory, refines focus, helps people cope with strong emotions, increases creativity, and boosts the immune system.

This is what I love about Star Wars – throughout every iteration of this franchise we return to the basic idea that if you fully experience the present moment, amazing things can happen. “Using the force” isn’t a skill unique to Jedi Knights – it’s something anyone can master with a little practice.

What about the Sith? Do they practice mindfulness? Quite the opposite...

Avoidance is the path to the dark side

Star Wars Episode III Revenge of the Sith

To understand the dark side of The Force, we need to get back to the Skywalkers. Both Anakin and Luke go through similar experiences. They’re raised away from their parents, are blocked from doing the things they want to do, experience traumatic events like the murder of family members, and are thrust into galactic war without completing their training. Why does Anakin become a Sith while Luke remains a Jedi? Anakin desperately avoids painful experiences while Luke has mastered mindfulness.

Anakin struggles with something called experiential avoidance (the opposite of mindfulness). It’s hard for him to live in the present moment, feel emotions, and remember painful memories. By avoiding, controlling, and restricting experiences, Anakin initially feels relief. But this causes long-term problems. He starts to get nightmares, acts impulsively without thinking of any consequences, and becomes obsessed with protecting Padme because he never wants to feel grief ever again. Darth Sidious capitalizes on Anakin's obsession with avoidance and that's how this Skywalker becomes Darth Vader.

There’s a good reason why Anakin struggles with experiential avoidance. He was enslaved at an early age and probably suffered a lot of physical and verbal abuse. We know kids who experience these types of traumas feel powerful emotions and have a hard time managing them. By comparison, Luke had a relatively normal childhood with two stable caregivers.

I don’t want you to think shutting down uncomfortable sensations will make you want to wipe out a bunch of younglings. Avoidance here and there is okay. But long-term experiential avoidance causes a lot of problems and it might be one of the root causes of all mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating disorders.

Yoda was wrong when he said, “Fear is the path to the dark side.” Fear just prepares us for dangerous situations. But George Lucas nailed it when he created a story about the consequences of experiential avoidance and virtues of mindfulness. 

Developing mindfulness

Star Wars Jedi Training

How does one begin their Jedi training and learn mindfulness? There are lots of resources available on and offline. Andy Puddicombe’s TED talk is a great introduction to living in the present moment, the Mayo Clinic has a nice list of quick mindfulness exercises you can start right away, and Jonathan Kaplan’s Urban Mindfulness is a concise book about practicing mindfulness in the most chaotic of environments.

I recommend starting with short awareness exercises. You could go out for a walk and focus on the world around you. Or perhaps drink some tea and pay attention to the color, temperature, smell, and taste of the beverage. You can also concentrate on what each part of your body feels like in the exact position you're in at this moment. Throughout all of these exercises, just make sure you embrace the experience fully and if you become distracted by thoughts or feelings make a mental note of them and return to the task at hand. Once you become more mindful during these exercises, you'll be able to integrate mindfulness into other parts of your life.

Some words of caution. It takes years for a Padawan to become a Jedi. While it won't take you that long to learn mindfulness, it's definitely something that requires a long-term commitment. It's also something that can't be applied 100% of the time. Do you see a Jedi use the Force every moment of every day? Of course not, that would be exhausting! Mindfulness works the same way. Use it when you want to increase your awareness or reduce experiential avoidance. Lastly, one of the pesky problems we have in this galaxy is the mindless culture we live in. Our always-connected technology makes it easy for us to escape the present moment. When you're practicing mindfulness, put away your smartphone and turn off nearby screens.

A New Dawn

JJ Abrams X-Wing Star Wars Episode VII

The prequel and original Star Wars trilogies tell essential stories about psychological distress and health. We don’t know what ideas will be explored in the sequel trilogy, but we do know that J.J. Abrams has always been immersed in the Star Wars saga. I'm confident he'll honor its psychology in Episode VII, just like every iteration of this awesome universe.

Doctor Who Reminds Us That Anxiety Isn’t Something to Fear, It’s Rocket Fuel

Doctor Who just started series eight (“season eight” for the yanks) with a newly regenerated Twelfth Doctor played by Peter Capaldi. We’re a few episodes in and so far it’s been a bumpy ride. My favorite Doctor Who stories are about “the victory of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism”, stuff that makes you think or gives you something to aspire to. I haven’t seen much of that yet. But this week’s episode, “Listen”, got very close. The Doctor did in seconds what I spend hours doing with my patients — teaching people that anxiety isn’t something to fear, it’s rocket fuel.

No spoilers ahead, just psychological analysis. 

“Let me tell you about scared...”

Doctor Who, Listen, There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain it’s like rocket fuel. 

I’ll skip all the timey wimey plot details. Basically, The Doctor is investigating invisible monsters, the kind kids worry might be under their beds at night. Midway through the episode, The Doctor finds a young boy who’s just come face to face with such a monster. The boy’s obviously afraid. This is what The Doctor says:

Let me tell you about scared. Your heart is beating so hard I can feel it through your hands. There’s so much blood and oxygen pumping through your brain it’s like rocket fuel. Right now you could run faster and you can fight harder. You can jump higher than ever in your life and you are so alert it’s like you can slow down time. What’s wrong with scared? Scared is a superpower! Your superpower! There is danger in this room. And guess what? It’s you.

With this new way perspective, the boy is able to get through the situation, despite his terror.

Some have called this the “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” Doctor Who episode. But that’s not entirely correct — The Doctor tells us we don’t have to fear fear itself, we need to feel it.

As someone who’s spent their career studying anxiety and its treatment, I can tell you The Doctor is totally right.

Anxiety is Rocket Fuel

Emotions quickly communicate information. Sadness means a loss has occurred (your best friend moved away). Anger tells us we’ve been wronged (someone at work ate your leftovers without asking). Laughter lets people know that even though a social norm has been broken, things are okay (a friend walks, almost falls, but catches their balance right at the end). What about fear? It prepares us for danger.

When we feel the presence of something scary, our bodies turn on the fight or flight response. Its job is to gets us ready to battle nearby dangers, support people who need help, or escape to safety as quickly as possible. That’s why your heart beats faster, you breathe more quickly, your muscles get tense, and you start to sweat. All of these changes are the “rocket fuel” The Doctor spoke of, the things that help us run faster, jump higher, and fight harder.

Anxiety also warps your psychology. Your mind exaggerates details (making a scary dog look larger than it is), imagines the worst-case scenario (the dog is going to bite you and you’ll die), and forces you to ignore everything but the thing that scares you (you don’t see the dog is securely held by a leash).

In the short term, all of this is a very good thing and protects us from predators (lions) and dangerous situations (walking across a rickety old bridge). A normal amount of stress also helps us get things done, whether it’s studying for a test or paying the bills. Stress, fear, and anxiety are our companions. Without them, our species wouldn’t have survived for very long.

Research now indicates that stress is more than a survival mechanism. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains how stress also makes it easier to get support from friends and family in her fantastic TED talk. Here’s an excerpt:

[Oxytocin] is a stress hormone. It's as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.

You Can’t Avoid Rocket Fuel, Better to Ride It Out

Doctor Who, Meditation on top of TARDIS outside Earth

If stress, fear, and anxiety are normal and helpful parts of the human experience, than why are anxiety disorders one of the most common mental health problems impacting children, teenagers, and adults?

Some people are more sensitive to anxiety. All those physical and mental changes we talked about, the stuff that comes along with the rocket fuel, those sensations are stronger in people who have a vulnerability to anxiety. Others have gone through difficult experiences — maybe they were bullied, saw a traumatic event where someone’s life was in danger, or were in a situation that went drastically wrong. There’s also the possibility that someone might not know what to do when they’re anxious and feel out of control when fight or flight is triggered.

When anxiety limits what you can do in your life, or makes everyday activities painful, that’s when you’ve got an anxiety disorder. Most people with anxiety disorders cope by avoiding situations that cause them distress (like Tony Stark in Iron Man 3). But there’s no way to completely avoid anxiety, it’s a normal everyday human emotion. Avoiding situations increases anxiety sensitivity, making the problem a lot worse in the long-term. What’s the solution? Experience the anxiety and ride it out.

This type of treatment is called exposure therapy. It’s based on the biological process of habituation, how humans get used to things that stay the same. Think about the last time you jumped in a pool. The water felt cold at first, right? But the longer you stayed in, the warmer the water felt. The actual temperature never changed but because you stayed in the situation your body got used to it. We use this same process in cognitive behavioral therapy to help people become comfortable with anxiety, accept anxious thoughts, and face anxious situations. It's the most effective treatment for anxiety disorders.

That’s why I love this week’s Doctor Who — it reminds us that everyone, including Time Lords, get anxious and that’s totally normal. In fact, it’s pretty cool and super helpful.


For more on anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy, and exposure treatment, watch my interview with Huffington Post Live. To hear more about Doctor Who Series 8 and the Twelfth Doctor, download episode 32 of the Super Fantastic Nerd Hour podcast.