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.

How a Walkman Makes Guardians of the Galaxy an Awesome Psychological Experience

Guardians of the Galaxy poster

Unlike Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, I had no idea who the Guardians of the Galaxy were when Marvel Studios announced the film at Comic Con 2012. When details started to leak, I got pretty excited. Fresh characters set in a wild science fiction universe from a studio known for making consistently fun movies? Count me in!

Now that it's out, people are calling Guardians of the Galaxy the spiritual successor to Star Wars. I wouldn't go that far, but watching the film is an awesome experience. I love its message, nostalgia explosion, and mood-altering music. What's the psychology of Guardians of the Galaxy? It’s all represented by Star-Lord's Walkman.

No spoilers ahead, just analysis. 

More Marvel Fun, Same Marvel Problems

Groot and Rocket

Groot and Rocket

Most of Guardians of the Galaxy works extremely well. The cinematography and special effects are beautiful, particularly all the cosmic IMAX scenes. The ships, worlds, and space stations have that “lived in” feeling of the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s not just the environment that feels real – the film’s wacky cast of characters does as well. From Rocket, the genetically engineered raccoon, to Groot, a walking tree with the same speech problem as Hodor, you don’t have to suspend your disbelief too much to enjoy this film. That’s one of the biggest achievements of Guardians of the Galaxy – it takes some weird science fiction premises and makes them relatable. Seriously, this is a big deal! Lots of other science fiction epics have tried to do this (Dune, Green Lantern) and completely failed. Credits go to science nerd Nicole Pearlman for writing an approachable script and James Gunn for directing a perfectly cast film.  

This is what Marvel Studios does best. Their whole Cinematic Universe is based on making their comic book heroes easy to understand and a lot of fun to watch. However, Marvel can’t seem to create any interesting villains beyond Loki. Every Marvel Studios villain is motivated to destroy a realm/planet/galaxy using whatever magical object happens to be in the film. This keeps Guardians of the Galaxy from succeeding Star Wars. Darth Vader is a memorable villain. Ronan the Accuser is not. Sure, there’s that other guy in this film, but you have to be a big comics nerd to appreciate who that person is and what he could become in future films.

Shared Goals Unite the Guardians of the Galaxy

guardians-of-the-galaxy-prison.jpg

Even though the film’s villain bored me, I loved watching Peter "Star-Lord" Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot become the Guardians. Underneath all the humor and action are some great messages about teamwork. The Guardians start out as adversaries who realize they have much more to gain if they work together as a team.

It isn't just sentimental – it’s scientifically accurate. In a classic social psychology experiment, Muzafer Sharif put teams of boys in a summer camp and made them compete. The two groups were pretty nasty to each other (think Gryffindor and Slytherin). But when Sharif introduced an obstacle that could only be overcome if both groups worked together (fix the camp’s water supply), the boys overcame their differences, fixed the problem, and eventually became friends.

Similarly, Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot all have different goals they want to achieve, but the only way any of them has a chance of succeeding is by teaming up. It’s just like the “superordinate goals” of Sharif’s study.

X-Men: Days of Future Past did a better job exploring the psychology of teamwork and collaboration, so I’m not going to belabor the point here. I’d much rather talk about that Walkman. 

Nostalgia and the Importance of Stuff

Star-Lord's nostalgia command center. Click to enlarge.

Successful science fiction takes ideas that exist in popular culture and presents them in a stunning new way. Guardians of the Galaxy does this with our nostalgia for 1980s culture. There’re a lot of visual references that evoke Raiders of the Lost Ark, Flight of the Navigator, and The Last Starfighter. But what really impacted me was how much Quill treasures his memories of the 80s. He loves his Walkman and mix tape, named his ship after Alyssa Milano, speaks of John Stamos the legendary outlaw and the great heroism of Footloose. Each of these moments gets a good chuckle from the audience and brings back fond memories of Full House (at least for those of us over the age of 30). But for Quill, these things are “the umbilical cord that connects him to earth and the home and family he lost.”

This is what I love most about Guardians of the Galaxy – it perfectly explains the psychology of nostalgia and why we hold on to stuff. All of our emotions exist to quickly communicate information. Sadness tells us a loss has occurred. Anger notifies us that we’ve been wronged. Anxiety warns of danger. What does nostalgia do? Think about a fond memory from your childhood – those scratch and sniff stickers, watching ALF, making a mix tape, any of them is fine. Take a break from this article and let your memories wander back to the 80s.

When you get nostalgic, what happens? You probably feel good for a little bit and then you start thinking about the people in those memories – friends, siblings, or your parents. Maybe you get an urge to reach out to one of those individuals. Or perhaps you want to share your story with someone nearby. That’s why nostalgia is built into our software – it reminds us that social relationships are important and encourages us to connect with the people we love. Objects from our past, and things that remind us of our past, preserve our memories and connect us with our loved ones. By holding tightly to his Walkman, Quill keeps the memory of his family alive. It’s probably Quill’s nostalgia (and how much he wants to connect with others) that makes him so motivated to turn Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot into his friends.

Of course nostalgia is exploited all the time to sell products (like this film), but the way Guardians of the Galaxy tells this story validates a big trend in pop culture. Those of us who grew up in the 80s like to buy stuff that reminds us of our childhood. It’s not that we’re childish or have some kind of psychological problem. We’re just trying to keep the memories of those important experiences alive, just like Star-Lord. That's why I've got a collection of Street Fighter video games and toys at home. They bring back beloved childhood memories of hanging out with my brother before he passed away.  

The Mood-Altering Power of Music

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Prison-Guard-Walkman.jpg

Speaking of nostalgia, I need to talk about Awesome Mix Vol. 1. I CAN’T STOP LISTENING TO IT! Yes, it’s that good. Full of killer music from the 70s, the soundtrack ties into Quill’s story in a meaningful way and has a powerful impact on your emotions while watching Guardians of the Galaxy.

I’ve written before about music’s ability to sync us together, communicate like language, change our feelings, take us back in time, and express our identities. Awesome Mix Vol. 1 does all of those things, at the same time, with every song, in every scene of the film. Again, there might have been a strong commercial incentive here for Marvel Studios (the album is #1 on iTunes right now), but I love that they’ve created something that I can use anytime I need to lift my emotions and feel less like an a-hole. 

Guardians isn’t Star Wars, it’s Back to the Future

Back to the Future

Back to the Future

If you look at the role of nostalgia and music in Guardians of the Galaxy, you see the film has a lot more in common with Back to the Future than it does Star Wars. Like Back to the Future, Guardians of the Galaxy uses nostalgia about a past era to help different generations of audiences connect with each other. I’m sure most kids walk out of the movie asking their parents about Walkmans, mixtapes, and why Star-Lord wasn't using an iPod. Maybe some of those families went on to listen to Awesome Mix Vol. 1 together on the trip home. This is why it's so easy to to forgive Guardians of the Galaxy’s few weaknesses – the film is going to help a ton of people connect with each other and introduce a whole new generation to the wonderful world of 70s music and 80s culture. 

That is awesome.


To learn about the individual psychology of Guardians of the Galaxy, check out Dr. Andrea Letamendi's analysis at Comics Alliance. AV Club captures what's wrong with Marvel Studios 3rd acts in their review. I like Variety's description of Guardians of the Galaxy as the "underachieving freaks and geeks" of the Marvel universe. You can hear me discuss Guardians of the Galaxy on Episode #29 of the Super Fantastic Nerd Hour.

The Psychology of Star Trek VS. Star Wars: Episode IV at San Diego Comic Con 2014 (Recap)

Psychology of Star Trek VS. Star Wars: Episode IV at San Diego Comic Con 2014

Last week, Dr. Andrea Letamendi and I brought our intergalactic scifi battle, The Psychology of Star Trek Versus Star Wars, back to San Diego Comic Con! Producer Rod Roddenberry (Trek Nation) and actor Sam Witwer (Star Wars: The Clone Wars) joined the discussion with Brian Ward returning as referee.

While Episode III focused on the science behind family, relationships, friendships, and bullying, for Episode IV we discussed what it takes to reach your full potential and what happens if you fail to achieve it. 

If you couldn’t make it, download the audio, listen to the full panel, or check out the highlights below. We'll have video of the panel available late next week.

Round 1: Realizing Your Full Potential

Star Trek 2009's Kirk facing Enterprise; Star Wars: A New Hope Luke twin sunset.

Brian: Whether it’s realizing that your more than a kid from Iowa or a moisture farmer on Tatooine, both franchises deal with self-actualization quite a lot. Psychologically speaking, which franchise handles it in a more healthy manner?

Andrea: We know that Star Wars is about self-actualization, the journey to your fulfillment, your purpose, your meaning, everything you are living for. We know through many characters in Star Wars that their individual journeys are very important. Star Trek deals with that, but within a societal/psychosocial themed universe. It’s more about building social relationships and trying to get along and all that.

Ali: Star Wars has a great story about self-actualization with these individuals – that’s nice. Star Trek is about humanity, the whole species. There are 3 basic things Star Trek is about when it comes to psychology – overcoming prejudice, promoting tolerance, and working together. We have some Andorians here – they helped us bring the Federation together. The Federation is about groups of people overcoming their prejudice and working together on large goals. That’s what Star Trek is about, something that’s larger than just individual people.

Sam: I’m going to have a real hard time here guys. Much like the two sides of Darth Vader warring with each other, I also feel like Spock in that I have my Star Trek side and my Star Wars side. I’m disagreeing with everyone at this point! So [turns to Andrea] are we supposed to win here, is that how this works?

Andrea: I would ask you to embrace your anger, give in to the dark side.

Sam: [Turns to Ali] Let’s talk about those individuals you said suck. What’s wonderful about them in Star Wars is they have more in common with mythic archetypes. You go all the way back to people like Odysseus and ah all those folks and even…ah…[audience laughs]…I’ve read stuff! I’m trying to stay away from the Greek gods because Star Trek did that as well, right? Like, “Oh we had Apollo in our show…”

Ali: In every other episode of The Original Series, yeah.

Sam: Yeah, exactly! Anyway, [Star Wars] has more to do with large myth couched in this wonderful fun popcorn Buster Crabbe Flash Gordan stuff. It makes those lessons really digestible to young folks. I remember in high school, a lot of situations where as a young person I was trying to figure out what’s right and wrong. You’d say, “I could do this, but that’s the dark side, the quick and easy path.” Those movies provided us with that vocabulary, to help us digest the world around us in terms that are a lot more fun than sitting around and mashing your teeth about being a young person. 

Rod: I grew up on Star Wars, believe it or not, I saw it in the theater 10 or 20 times. My intellectual maturity wasn't really developed. However, when it did…

[Audience laughs]

Sam: I’m on your side, pal! I’m on everyone’s side!

Brian: This is why they keep inviting us back!

Rod: Listen, I love both sides. I’m just trying to dig the knife a little bit, just to stir things up. I grew up on The Next Generation, that was my series. For Mission Log, I just started watching it again. The first season may not be the strongest season, but every episode dealt with an issue. The Next Generation was already that better humanity. It was hard for certain people to identify with those humans because they were what we could be one day. I think a lot of what is in Star Wars is very familiar to us. The behaviors, the basic right and wrong, good and bad. I’m really not downing it, but it’s just easier to understand – black and white. Star Trek is a bit deeper, for me, because it’s a better humanity already. It makes me feel good. That’s the world I want to live in. That’s the future I want to live in. I don’t necessarily, although it might be fun, want to live in the Star Wars world.

Ali: But if you want a war, watch Deep Space Nine. We’ve got a war too! It’s a really big one, with Changelings and stuff.

Sam: Let me ask everyone here - what’s darker? This is me actually asking. I have a friend I showed a whole bunch of Star Trek to and a whole bunch of Star Wars. She felt Star Wars was a lot darker.

Rod: Deep Space Nine is pretty dark show.

Sam: Yeah…let’s lie and get the Romulans into the war. Spoiler alert!

Ali: Ah…best episode ever! Sam, that’s my favorite episode of Star Trek right there – “In the Pale Moonlight.” You just earned points!

Sam: Star Trek is all about we fire on you, but then you fire on us, and then we come to an understanding afterwards. If I decide to go to war with you guys, Darth Vader don’t take no prisoners man! I’m just saying, it’s in your nature to be forgiving. I don’t want to take the gloves off.

Round 2: Failure

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace Darth Maul

Brian: You could have been genetically bred to conquer the Earth and be the best of the tyrants, but sometimes you get only get a quarter of the Earth under your possession before they jettison you into space. And you could have been given away to a lord of the Sith to be his apprentice and just before you got to realize that potential you were cut in half. Let’s talk about these two franchises and what it means psychologically to nearly realize your goals and having them taken away.

Ali: This question is pretty awesome.

Brian: I know.

Ali: My favorite part about Phantom Menace is Darth Maul. I thought he was such a cool character. To see him brother back in Clone Wars was so exciting. We too on the Star Trek side have Khan and he was brought back too…but we don’t have to talk about that. What we are talking about is what happens when you have a goal. Both of these individuals were bred for one purpose. Darth Maul, from an early age, without much choice was raised to be a dark Sith assassin. Khan was engineered through eugenics to become a superhuman. In “Space Seed” they say he was “the best of them”. Both of these individuals have a singular purpose. Khan wanted to rule the world. He didn’t really do a good job, sorta led to World War III. Darth Maul was bred to kill Jedi and he was cut in half. Both of these characters become consumed with revenge. Khan wants it against Kirk and Maul wants it against Obi-Wan. The psychology here comes down to this – “I’ve done far worse than kill you. I’ve hurt you! And I want to go on hurting you!” Revenge is all about having a wound and hoping if you get back at that person it’ll somehow fix the would. What we know about the psychology here is at first revenge feels good. “Revenge is dish best served cold”, with a little bit of sugar on top because it feels good in the moment. But what the research has shown is the more you’re stuck on revenge and ruminating on these thoughts that pain, your wound, how angry you are at Obi-Wan and Kirk, it just festers. Compare this against Luke and Kirk. Kirk lost his son to Klingons. Throughout The Undiscovered Country, Kirk is going through this process of forgiveness and trying to find empathy for the Klingons. Luke had his hand cut off by Vader and the Emperor is telling him to give in to the dark side and he doesn’t. Both of those characters are able to find forgiveness. Both develop empathy. They’re not saying it’s okay that these things happened, but they are able to find a way to move on. [Maul and Khan] are not.

Andrea: While I understand Khan’s feelings of revenge, biological and neurologically they’re superficial. We keep ending the story when Darth Maul is cut in half. What happens after that? There's this recovery process, an interesting and realistic psychological transformation that we see unfold in Clone Wars. Actual neurobioloigcal research has shown us that when we have that type of severe psychological and biological injury, there are changes in the brain. When we hear the phrase trauma causes brain damage or the body never forgets, that's what we're seeing in the encounter on Lotho Minor. He's completely psychologically disorganized and dysfunctional. He's nearly psychotic. I want to recognize Sam for characterizing that level of psychopathology. You could really feel that level of dysfunction. That speaks to the neurobiology of the experience of failure, trauma, and stress. It's hard to watch but I thought it was very realistic.

Sam: Thank you. First, I'm just going to say this, I'm the worst teammate ever. I'm going to reveal something here that is going to give Star Trek fans a lot of glee – so I'm sorry. What you said [Andrea] was beautiful and what you said [Ali] is where I'm going to go with this.

Rod: This is great! I really don't have to do anything.

Sam: When we were talking about Darth Maul, we talked about his whole arc before we recorded anything. One of the things we kept touching back on was, "I've done far worse than kill you, I've hurt you." So when we first meet him he's in crisis and then he gets his stuff back together and all he wants to do is beat up Obi-Wan and kill him real quick. He wins, he beats Obi-Wan but then lets him go because he doesn't feel any better. Maybe it wasn't big enough. Maybe the revenge needs to be larger, bigger. So he starts raising an army, doing all these things, figuring out who Obi-Wan cares about and then eventually finds Satine. Spoiler alert here, but he ends up hurting Obi-Wan in a very major way. Obi-Wan demonstrates his superiority by not seeking revenge, which is disappointing to Darth Maul but we never get to that point because suddenly we get to Darth Sidious and there's a whole other revenge plot that happens there. It's an endless cycle. I'm certain if we had seen Khan more in the TV series or movies we would have seen a recurring revenge cycle because it's a wound that never heals. The only way that you can heal it is by forgiving your enemy, by offering a compassionate response, by offering mercy. It's no mistake that the first thing we hear Darth Maul say in that garbage pit is mumbling to himself about how mercy is a lie. The last thing we hear Darth Maul say is him begging Darth Sidious for mercy, and Darth Sidious doesn't give it to him. So thank you Star Trek, thank you Andrea, thank you everyone for feeding that response. I suck at this.

Andrea: Remember the rule of two – it's usually broken. There's usually a 3rd party in the rule of two. I'm okay with that.

Sam: I'm betraying my own kind!

Ali: The Sith should really drop that rule of two, it hasn't worked out too well for you all.

Rod: I come at this from a slightly different point of view. There's a lot of respect for Khan in “Space Seed” and the latest movie. There's a lot of depth to the character. I didn't know much about Darth Maul except what I saw in the movie. I learned quite a bit right now. Khan, I have respect for him. He loves his family. Those 72 other people are his family. He has compassion. He has a heart. His views are a little screwed up, but I find him to be a more intriguing character to me whereas I think Maul was more one-dimensional but I know more about Khan than I do Maul. Sometimes you can look at someone who has the wrong point of view but you can still understand them and appreciate where they're coming from. That's where I live with Khan.

Sam: One of the primary differences with Star Trek and Star Wars is that Star Wars paints in more primary colors. It's louder and bigger. Star Trek likes to get really nuanced in very specific ways. That's why I love both of them.

Rod: It's hard to do that with theatrical versus television.

Sam: Right! That's absolutely true. It's nice to see that in those 6 movies they had a lot of success with that nuance, especially with Khan. Star Wars performances don't work if you do them subtly. Star Wars is better when it's bigger and faster and operatic and giant. Star Trek is better when it has subtle moments with the characters – Kirk, Spock, and Bones talking a problem out.

Rod: It makes me want to know more about Darth Maul though. I want to sit around a coffee table with him, have some other characters surround him like Luke and they just talk philosophy. [Asks audience] Who would win in a fight -- Khan or Darth Maul?

[Crowd mostly screams Khan]

Ali: I don't think Khan would win against Maul! I'm going to give an assist to Dr. Letamendi over there...what beat Khan in The Original Series? A BIG PIPE! Come on! Maul has a lightsaber.

Sam: Oh no no no no my friend, I saw Kirk at one point take both of his fists and combine them into one fist and strike him several times. That's what I saw. One fist can do a lot of damage. Two fists are like square root of fist.

Brian: But these two would never meet because Star Trek is in the future, Star Wars is a galaxy a long time ago.

Rod: Yeah but they got really at warp speed! They can go back in time.

Sam: Slingshot effect, come on man let's do this! 

Round 3: Rule of 2 and Number 1

Star Wars Rule of 2, Star Trek Number 1

Brian: Rule of two and Number One. Talk about mentoring and apprenticeship. Whether it is Captain Picard and Riker or Sidious and Maul. Let's talk about what we know about training and education and which system is better.

Andrea: Folks know what the rule of two is? Usually there is a master and apprentice. A lot of times with the Sith this is violated. There's a secret other apprentice who kills one of the other two. Despite that there's a classic relationship where the mentor is trying to instill some intellectual, emotional, and physical ability in the mentee and there's a need to make the mentor proud of them. With Star Trek, there are times when Riker was offered his own ship and he didn't immediately take that opportunity...

Sam: You get paid less if you leave the show.

Ali: The economics of the future are a little different.

Sam: You guys wanted Riker off the show? I didn't. Don't take the ship! Stick around. He's got a cool beard now.

Andrea: There's something weird about their relationship. There's too much enmeshment or attachment. When the bird's ready to fly, leave the nest.

Sam: Let's talk about the master and apprentice relationship between Ben and Luke and Ben's replacement – Yoda. There's a real thing that happens in Star Wars where Luke is impatient. He doesn't listen to everything that's told to him. Yoda's trying to say, "Hey, chill out, relax, people can take care of themselves. It's not all about you." Luke can't see that point of view. In fact, The Empire Strikes Back really is about respecting your elders. Luke doesn't do that. Because he doesn't do that he goes off trying to rescue his friends and his friend end up having to rescue him. He almost blows the entire plan. He almost loses the entire movie series for us in that one impatient move. Then the next movie is interesting because it's about the opposite. It's about rejecting your elders. Move past your elders. You become the man or woman. You've grown up. You're actualized. Ben says, "You must face Darth Vader again."

And he's like, "You're saying kill him?"

"Well...face him."

“You know he's my dad?"

"Yeah, I do."

"Yoda, what do you think?"

"You must confront Vader."

Luke's like, "You guys are dicks! What is wrong with you people?!?"

"We saw him kill a bunch of children, he's a terrible husband, and he’s in this total Goth phase. We just want you to take care of him."

"No dude! I don't know what my solution is yet but I'm going to figure something out."

So the next movie is about rejecting your elders, the opposite message of the previous movie. Luke is now an adult, a man. He's grown past that mentor relationship. Now he's ready to make his own decisions. What does he find? He figures out a solution that no one thought of! A compassionate solution. A Star Trek solution. Through that we get a very satisfying ending. A brave ending. It makes Darth Vader a sympathetic character and Luke someone who's brave enough to have compassion.

Rod: I just learned so much!

Brian: Ali and Team Trek?

Ali: How do I follow up any of that?

Brian: It's got to be psychological torture.

Ali: THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS!

Sam: There are five.

Ali: So...ummm...I agree with both of you so let me take this into a different direction because I need to do that. This question is really one about training and education. How do we create the next generation of Sith, Jedi, and Captains. Both series have an academy and a mentor type relationship. If we look at the psychology of education, it actually shows that a lot of the lecture style of teaching that happens in academia, well there's not a lot of evidence to support that. What works really well is learning from your peers and having some type of mentor available to clarify and go through the stuff you're learning. Both series do that well. We see it with Luke, Wesley, and Nog. But Star Trek does it better. Both series have aptitude tests, like the SATs. In Star Trek, we've got the Kobayashi Maru. Star Wars, you guys have an aptitude test as well...it's a blood test. It's looking for midichlorians and we know tests like that aren't as successful. In Star Trek the tests are character based – how do you respond to this situation. Star Trek's about integrity, equal opportunity. You don't have to be off the charts on your midichlorians. You can be a Ferengi and still be in Starfleet.

Sam: That was extremely offensive, racially. "You can still be a Ferengi." REALLY?!?

Ali: Technically they're not members of the Federation...so yeah.

Sam: Wow.

Rod: I might agree with Star Wars a little bit. I love your response [Ali], so I'm on your side, but the one thought I really had was if you're a member of the Federation you have to abide by Federation laws, Starfleet has rules and regulations. With Riker and Picard, there wasn't much growth in the characters. Not as much as Luke and Leia. They don't have to abide by any set rules. They understand that everyone's going to have a different journey while the Federation regulates.

Ali: Hold on, Rod. Riker grew a beard, how much more growth do you want?!?

Rod: Yes, yes he did.

Sam: Star Trek taught me a lot about patience in that process you're talking about. There really was a feeling that you must have a great deal of experience before you captain a ship. Even when you captain a ship you are looking to your friends who are your subordinates but you're treating them as equals because they have knowledge that you don't. They have wisdom that you don't. You add that to yourself before you make a decision.

Rod: Yoda had 900 years of wisdom.

Sam: There's that. Star Wars is more about how the relationship with your father and your parents is not what you hoped it would be and can you forgive them for it? There are two different types of learning there and both are very useful for young minds.

Audience Member: Switch seats!

Sam: We're trying to bring balance to the force dude!

Rod: Without dark there can be no light.

Round 4: The Creators

Star Trek's Gene Roddenberry, Star Wars's George Lucas

Brian: We've talked about the visions of these two franchises, but I want to talk about their creators. Gene Roddenberry and his vision for Star Trek and George Lucas and his vision for Star Wars. What do these two franchises say about their creators? Let's start with Team Trek.

Ali: I'm going to allow my estimated colleague Rod RODDENBERRY to take the lead on this question.

Rod: Obviously I wasn't around for The Original Series, but I did learn a great deal about my father since then and I do every day in terms of his philosophy. I can tell you that the difference between The Original Series and The Next Generation was a difference in my father. You see the cowboy Kirk versus the Picard who just wants to shepherd ambassadors from place to place. I know that came out in a derogatory way.

Sam: Yeah I like Picard.

Rod: I actually like Picard too, but the action wasn't there. That's the difference between my father in his 40s and his 60s. My father had an incredible life. He was a World War 2 pilot. He was a LAPD officer. He wrote speeches for the chief of police when they were trying to bring the police and the community closer together. He was thinking about those things then. He saw the worst that humanity had to offer and he saw the best humanity had to offer. It was with that perspective that he was able to build these philosophies. Everyone puts my father on a pedestal. He did create Star Trek but he also had help shaping it. There were so many others who were involved that made it what it is. This is why I brand everything Roddenberry. Well, first CBS won't let me use Star Trek. But I'm in love with the philosophy. I love what the series teaches us. I think it teaches us all something different, but it does teach us that we need to accept each other and find beauty in the differences between us. That's something that resonates so powerfully with me. It's something I work on every day. I might see someone and hear them say something and I'll say, "They're full of shit." Then I have to think, "What a second, they might have a point." That's how we grow as a species – hearing something that is contrary to our thoughts and being willing to accept them. That's my father, that's Star Trek, and what I see in the show. If anyone changes that in future movies or TV shows I'm going to be really pissed off.

Ali: The story of Gene Roddenberry is the story of resilience. This is an individual who did go through and see a lot of horrific things, whether it was in World War 2 or working as a police officer. He was able to survive those things, to endure them, and to grow as a person. That experience must have in some way influenced the story of Star Trek, which is a story about resilience and working to better ourselves.

Brian: Team Wars?

Andrea: I completely agree.

Brian: What is wrong with this panel!?!

Sam: Hold on, you're asking us to get competitive when we're sitting here next to the guy's kid?!? I don't get it.

Rod: Hey listen, I just said it, I want to hear contrary ideas. I want someone to tell me Star Trek sucks and tell me why.

Andrea: I don't think it sucks! What you said is completely valid. I feel the same way. I actually hate the "versus" things. I know it's the title of the panel, but I think both Star Trek and Star Wars are meaningful to us in different ways. I hate the idea that people think Star Wars is just a space opera with cowboys in space. George Lucas had an idea to create these worlds out of escapism. To get outside of where we are and who we are. To be in this fantasy world. To get excited and hopeful. To get lost in it. It wasn't meant to be a prediction of where we're going to be. It's a way for us to get outside of where we are in order to cope with what's going on. Star Trek has messages about a universe where we can collaborate and coexist. Folks who are currently disenfranchised and disempowered and feel that they are overlooked are hopeful that one day we'll get there. That's completely meaningful to us in a different way. I need to watch Star Wars to not think about the fact that we're not there yet.

Sam: There's an interesting contrast, and I'm speaking completely out of school here. I don't know this for a fact at all, but I'm going to say it anyway because I'm wearing a tie. It seems to me that your father when he wanted to make Star Trek had some things to say. He wanted to slip it into these sugar pills and get the audience to digest it without knowing what they were consuming. George Lucas, I don't think when he started had that ambition. All artists feel compelled to create something. We don't exactly know why, we just do. The deeper the artist is, the more interesting things slip into that creation. It's like the difference between Alien and Prometheus. The thing about Alien is it was just a bunch of dudes getting together and saying, "Let's make a horror film!" But they were deep dudes and ladies. And suddenly these things slip in to that horror film and we go, "Oh my God, look at what they were doing and saying!" They didn't quite know it at the time. It was almost an accidental process. With Star Wars, Darth Vader was supposed to die at the end. Did you guys know that? George Lucas has some kind of instinct, "Ah you know what can we do a take where he just spins off into the distance? Because if we can't you're fired." Then around the time of Empire Strikes Back, he's sitting in a hotel room...

Rod: Watching Star Trek.

Sam: Watching Star Trek. He's got a script in front of him that he's rewriting. Anakin Skywalker is a ghost talking to Luke Skywalker about Darth Vader. Then around a certain date Anakin Skywalker disappears from the script. Then no one's talking about Anakin Skywalker the same way. Suddenly, there's misinformation. At some point he was sitting in his hotel room writing and he calls up his wife, "Hey ahhh...Anakin's Darth Vader...I think I just made us a million dollars." The point is George Lucas, the things he was putting into those movies were incidental to what he was doing. George has things that he thinks about, George has things that are important to him, and if you're going to make a fun popcorn movie those things are going to slip in. Roddenberry was more considered. That's exactly why both of these franchises engage both sides of the brain. Both are hugely creative and hugely intellectual. I think Star Trek is a little bit more left brain and Star Wars is a little bit more right brain.

Rod: There’re also hundred of hours of Star Trek.

Ali: Just give Disney a few years...

Rod: While Paramount and CBS sit on their assess.

Sam: It's interesting that the difference between these two men might have been that –one man wanted to make a fun popcorn movie and go by instinct and the other had some things to talk about.

Q & A

Star Wars Death Star Run, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Runabout Wormhole Aliens

Since our panel was the last of the day, the convention staff were very generous and allowed us to go over our allotted time. This opened up the opportunity for a dialogue with the audience on topics such as self-actualization in the rebooted J.J. Abrams Star Trek films, why Star Trek appeals to individuals in the military, portrayals of strong female characters in Star Trek and Star Wars, and the impact George Lucas’s personal life might have had on Star Wars. The highlight of this discussion was the following question:

Audience Member: What is your favorite aspect of the series you are not currently defending?

Rod: Ewoks. I'm one of the three who loves Return of the Jedi. I love the Ewoks. I want one as a pet.

Sam: You saw them as pets!?! Even an Ewok can join Starfleet! To pick one thing about Star Trek that I love is too difficult.

Rod: But you spent all of tonight defending Star Trek.

Ali: The whole idea of using the force, during the Death Star run, in that moment Luke has to find mindfulness, completely being present in the moment, letting whatever judgments he has like "you can't do it Luke", let that go away, embrace the moment, and trust your instinct. Man that had a huge impact on me when I saw Star Wars. I saw Star Wars first before Star Trek and I thought it was really cool! Scary, but cool. It paved the road for me to see Star Trek and embrace it for what it was.

Sam: Kirk. The fact that the Klingons really messed him up but even with the guy who killed his kid, Kirk had an instinct to try to help him even when he had an advantage.

Rod: I want to say the same thing about Luke and Darth -- he never gave up hope.

Andrea: I really hate Ewoks. I had to say that. I really like Star Trek and its ideas on inclusion. I absolutely love watching The Original Series, The Next Generation, and I just started watching Deep Space Nine. I've said this before on a previous panel, but the pilot episode of Deep Space Nine is incredible. I love that they didn't bring in a human psychologist or psychiatrist to tell the story of living in the past and trying to recover from trauma. It's an incredible way for us to think about our own journey when we are stuck with terrible things that can happen to you. The way the wormhole aliens teach us that is incredible. It's a great psychological lesson done in a very cool way.

Ali: You know what else I like about Star Wars? It helped bring Star Trek back. And now we're returning the favor.

Episode V

Andrea and I are currently developing the next phase of the panel and hope to continue the debate with Episode V in 2015. Got a topic you want to see us debate? Let us know in the comments below. 

The Psychology of Cult TV Shows Live at San Diego Comic Con 2014

Image by Booster Designs.

Image by Booster Designs.

Join me and a panel of therapists and scientists (mad or otherwise), including Dr. Janina Scarlet (The Superhero Manual), Dr. Travis Langley (Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight), and Billy San Juan (Alliant International University) as we discuss the psychology behind cult TV shows at San Diego Comic Con! Find out how TV shows might help us cope with painful experiences and what psychology says about the demons that live inside us.