Doctor Who Taught Me How to Embrace a New Culture

Doctor Who  celebrates its 50th anniversary this Saturday, November 23rd.

Doctor Who celebrates its 50th anniversary this Saturday, November 23rd.

My geek flag is firmly planted in space science fiction. I became a psychologist because of Star Trek. Firefly helped me understand myself. And I use Battlestar Galactica to teach suicide prevention. When my mind wanders, it gravitates to the final frontier.

Science fiction isn't just about space though. I've grown to love stories about dystopias, robotics, and time-travel too. That's why I was intrigued when BBC relaunched Doctor Who in 2005. I never saw the original Doctor Who series, but I knew it integrated many aspects of science fiction and was beloved around the world. 

I made it through 2 episodes of the new Doctor Who series before I quit. I didn’t understand the rules of the universe and was turned off by the cheap visual effects. I love British humor (I grew up watching Mr. Bean and Are you Being Served?) and I'm a huge fan of campy scifi (Galaxy Quest and The Fifth Element are amazing movies), but Doctor Who was just too weird for me. 

This was the moment I decided to stop watching  Doctor Who .

This was the moment I decided to stop watching Doctor Who.

Even though I gave up on the Doctor, I couldn't quite escape him. My friends pestered me to give the show another chance, readers of this website kept asking me to write about the Doctor, and each time I spoke publicly about the psychology of science fiction someone in the audience ALWAYS brought him up. I read a few Wikipedia articles about Doctor Who, enough to drop references to sonic screwdrivers and the TARDIS. That got me by for a while. But when Geek Therapist Josué Cardona publicly called me out for not understanding Doctor Who on his podcast a couple of weeks ago, it become painfully clear to me that I wouldn't have any credibility as a science fiction psychologist until I understood what made Doctor Who so popular.

The more I learned about  Doctor Who , the more it reminded me of other scifi shows that I love. Illustration by J. K. Woodward for IDW Comics. 

The more I learned about Doctor Who, the more it reminded me of other scifi shows that I love. Illustration by J. K. Woodward for IDW Comics. 

I reached out to the Whovians in my life and asked them why they cared so much about the show, people like The Memoirist and The Superherologist. They told me about the Doctor's constant spirit of adventure, how he always did the right thing no matter the cost, and his imaginative intellect. That gave me a familiar context for the character – basically a mashup of Indiana Jones, Captain Kirk, and Sherlock Holmes, which sounded awesome! After my buddy, Bill, told me about BBC's tiny budget, I felt like a jerk for judging the show based on its special effects alone. What really hit me was how another friend, Anne, described her interpretation of regeneration – "like the Doctor, we can all shed dysfunctional parts of ourselves, keep our strengths, and build towards a better future." That's the same idea behind Star Trek! The more I listened to people who loved the Doctor, the more familiar he became.

After publicly shaming me, Josué was kind enough to guide me through the best episodes of the show, like "Blink", "Father's Day", and "The 11th Hour". He gave me context and answered my questions. I initially committed to watching only 5 episodes, but now I've seen 17. Sure the order I saw episodes was a bit wibbly wobbly, and I’m still confused about the mythology, but I get the appeal now. As Craig Ferguson said, Doctor Who is about “the victory of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.” What’s not to love about that?!?

For a kid who grew up being judged for looking different and having geeky interests, it was stupid for me to reject Doctor Who just because it was unfamiliar. But that’s how our psychology works – we like things we’re used to. The Doctor taught me that the only way to boldly go is by immersing ourselves in the unfamiliar and listening to people who see things differently than we do.

The Psychology of Spock: Past, Present, and Future

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I recently caught up with a Trekkie friend of mine. He's a psychiatrist and I'm a psychologist, so of course we did a deep dive into the psyche of the latest film — Star Trek Into Darkness. Our conversation kept coming back to Spock.

"He's the most important character in the Star Trek universe," Dr. T said. "Spock has wielded more influence on the alpha quadrant than anyone else."

I never thought about Spock like that before, but Dr. T was right—he is the only character who's made an appearance in every era of Star Trek including The Original Series, The Next Generation, and J.J. Abrams’s new parallel universe.

"Why is Spock such an enduring character?" I asked. "What makes him so unique?"

Dr. T and I spent the rest of the night trying to understand Spock. After a small detour debating who would win an “Amok Time” fight — Leonard Nimoy or Zachary Quinto, we eventually decided that Spock's teaches us that the things that make us different, strange, and weird are the same things that make us awesome.

This is not only an expansion on my conversation with Dr. T., but an attempt to summarize 47 years of canon and 2 parallel universes into 1 comprehensive conceptualization of a character. I present to you the psychology of Spock — past, present, and future.

"Spock's Brain"

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Who we are is the result of our biology, psychology, and experiences. So let's start our conceptualization of Spock by exploring his unique biology.

Spock is half human and half Vulcan. While we can't begin to imagine how the biology of an interspecies human would work, we can extrapolate based on what we've seen in Star Trek and know about science.

  • Spock is genetically diverse, making him more adaptive to new environments and less susceptible to genetic diseases (like his father's dementia).
  • Since Vulcans evolved in a harsher environment, Spock is stronger than humans. 
  • Vulcans are touch telepaths, giving Spock the ability to share thoughts through a mind-meld.
  • Vulcans experience powerful emotions, making Spock more vulnerable to very intense feelings.

The last point is key to understanding Spock's psychology. Here's how Spock's father describes Vulcan emotions in 2009’s Star Trek:

Sarek: "Emotions run deep within our race. In many ways more deeply than in humans. Logic offers a serenity humans seldom experience. The control of feelings so that they do not control you."

Since Spock has a nervous system that experiences powerful emotions (I.E. a very fast limbic system), he can make decisions very quickly. What about his human biology? The following conversation from Star Trek: Enterprise helps us understand the difference between humans and Vulcans:

Soval: We don't know what to do about Humans. Of all the species we've made contact with, yours is the only one we can't define. You have the arrogance of Andorians, the stubborn pride of Tellarites. One moment, you're as driven by your emotions as Klingons, and the next, you confound us by suddenly embracing logic.
Forrest: I'm sure those qualities are found in every species.
Soval: Not in such confusing abundance.

We humans are very flexible in our thinking — which explains why we can be so erratic and unpredictable. This is due to our prefrontal cortex, the region that coordinates our thoughts and decides what to do. It's also the area responsible for regulating our feelings. Because humans can entertain many different ideas at once, sometimes we’re logical while at other times we’re deeply emotional.

This is why Spock’s brain is so unique — he's got the flexibility of a human mind combined with the strength of Vulcan emotions. Yes, his human side might make it more difficult for him to control his Vulcan feelings, but the integration of the two gives him the opportunity to quickly think in very creative ways.

"A Child of Two Worlds"

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The central psychological experience of Spock's childhood is growing up in a bicultural home. Not only is he a minority on Vulcan, he might be the only human/Vulcan child ON THE WHOLE PLANET!

The major challenge for bicultural children is to integrate their two cultures. People who are able to do this usually feel proud about being unique. Others find their cultures to be in conflict with each other and feel pressure to choose one over another. Psychologists call this the Bicultural Identity Integration construct. Kids who are able to integrate their cultures become very good at cultural frame-switching — being able to think, act, and feel like a human on Earth and a Vulcan on Vulcan. Kids who can't integrate their cultures don't have this flexibility and have more rigid personalities. 

This is one of the reasons I love 2009's Star Trek so much—Spock's struggle to figure out his identity is beautifully portrayed. In a pivotal scene, a group of Vulcan boys bully Spock for being half human and push him hoping it will make him mad. Since showing strong emotions is a big taboo in Vulcan culture, this situation created a lot of anxiety for Spock because he was afraid of confirming a stereotype (that he can’t control his emotions). That’s stereotype threat in action—anytime we worry about fulfilling a stereotype we usually preform worse. In Spock's case, stereotype threat contributed to him losing his cool and beating the crap out of a kid (who totally deserved it by the way).

Situations like that caused a lot of identity conflict for Spock. Look closely at the conversations he had with his father and mother after the fight:

Spock: You suggest that I should be completely Vulcan…?
Sarek: …Spock, you are fully capable of deciding your own destiny. The question you face is: which path will you choose? This is something only you can decide.
Spock: Should I choose to complete the Vulcan discipline of Kolinahr and purge all emotion, I trust you will not feel it reflects judgment on you.
Amanda: Oh, Spock. As always, whatever you choose to be, you will have a proud mother.

In both conversations we can feel the tension between Spock's Vulcan and human identities. It's clear that Spock was questioning who he is and who he wanted to become (“Should I complete Kolinahr?”). Rather than guiding Spock down one path or another, both of his parents encouraged him to make his own decisions. By allowing him to independently explore his identity they increased the chances of Spock integrating both cultures. This type of parenting is a core component in resilience — the psychological factor that keeps kids healthy despite chronic stressors (like constant discrimination for being a “green-blooded hobgoblin”).

"I Choose Not to Feel"

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One of the key changes in the new Star Trek parallel universe is the destruction of Vulcan. Not only did Zachary Quinto’s Spock witness this trauma firsthand, he also lost his mother in the process.

After this terrorist attack, the Spock of the present was overwhelmed by powerful emotions. In response to his sadness and rage, Spock’s primary strategy became numbing himself to his feelings. After James Kirk ridiculed Spock for "feeling nothing" (another stereotype threat, “Vulcans have no emotions”), Spock attacked Kirk. After almost killing Kirk, Spock gave up his command of the Enterprise because he was "emotionally compromised".

Trying to numb powerful feelings and having uncontrollable emotional outbursts are common experiences after trauma. What becomes problematic is if such patterns continue long after a trauma has passed. This is exactly what happened to Spock in Star Trek Into Darkness. The events of Into Darkness take place about a year after the destruction of Vulcan. In the comic prequel, we learned that Spock has insomnia, nightmares about his mom and Vulcan’s destruction, and bursts of rage. In the film, it's very clear that Spock's trauma is impacting his relationship with Uhura. This exchange captured exactly how Spock has changed:

Uhura: At that Volcano you didn't give a thought to us, what it would do to me if you died, Spock. You didn't feel anything, you didn't care.
Spock: Your suggestion that I do not care about dying is incorrect. A sentient being's optimal chance at maximizing their utility is a long and prosperous life…It is true that I chose not to feel anything upon realizing that my own life was ending. As [REDACTED] was dying I joined with his consciousness and experienced what he felt at the moment of his passing — anger, confusion, loneliness, fear. I had experienced those feelings before, multiplied exponentially on the day my planet was destroyed. Such a feeling is something I choose never to experience again. Nayota, you mistake my choice not to feel as a reflection of my not caring. Well I assure you the truth is precisely the opposite.

The Spock of the present meets all major criteria for PTSD — re-experiencing traumatic events, avoiding situations, and becoming very sensitive to certain feelings. This isn't the resilient child we discussed earlier— this Spock is emotionally stuck, much like soldiers and veterans returning from service with PTSD. But this is not the man Spock is destined to be. 

"Cowboy Diplomacy"

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The Spock of the future (the one played by Leonard Nimoy) isn’t emotionally stuck, he’s incredibly flexible. Unlike most Vulcans, this Spock rejected Kolinahr, deciding to pursue logic and emotions. He integrated both of his cultures, switching his perspective as needed depending upon the situation he’s in. He understood conflicting points of view, making him highly empathic and open-minded. That's why he was so good at negotiating peace between the Klingon Empire and the United Federation of Planets as well as the Vulcan High Command and Romulan Empire. Captain Picard even compared Spock's tactics to "cowboy diplomacy," an emotional comparison never made of any other Vulcan. When you think about his unique biology, bicultural youth, and supportive parents, it's easy to see how Future Spock came to be. 

What does this mean for the Spock of the present, the one who’s struggling so deeply with his emotions? Individuals experiencing PTSD can go down many different paths. While Zachary Quinto's Spock will never turn out exactly like Leonard Nimoy's (one experienced significant trauma, the other didn’t), Present Spock can learn to overcome his trauma and grow from the experience.

Post-traumatic growth is the positive change that happens to a person as a result of their struggle with a trauma. Trauma doesn't cause a person to grow, it's about the decisions a person makes as a result of their trauma. Many people who experience post-traumatic growth describe feeling changed by their traumatic experiences, feel more connected to others, become more resilient against crises, or have a greater appreciation for life (think Captain Picard in “Tapestry”). Growth doesn't mean people don't suffer; pain is a part of the process. Growth cannot happen until you to learn how to face difficult emotions and talk about the things going on in your head.

This is the challenge for Present Spockto overcome his emotional demons. I won't give anything away, but based on what happens at the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, we're already beginning to see signs of growth in Spock (and a lot of it has to do with his friendship with Kirk—his new source of resiliency). 

A Reflection of Us

Ali Mattu Spock

Why is Spock such an enduring character? He is a reflection of who we are

Each of us has at one time or another felt different, strange, and out of place. As a child, Spock didn't completely fit in among Vulcans or humans. Yet he goes on to become the most influential officer in Starfleet. Growing up as a bicultural kid, I looked to Spock to give me hope that I too could overcome my “culture clash” and find confidence in myself.

The current Spock honors our experience of living in a world where we are constantly exposed to traumatic events (real or televised). While I’ve been fortunate not to be immediately impacted by a terrorist attack or natural disaster, I responded to the tragic death of my brother by avoiding my feelings. Watching Spock struggle with the loss of his mother in a similar way made me feel less crazy. 

Spock’s future reminds us that our differences are our strengths. That’s the ultimate lesson from the psychology of Spockif we can find a way to embrace all aspects of ourselves and approach life with an open mind, we are capable of great things.


March 5th, 2015 Update: Today on THE PSYCH SHOW I remember the life of Leonard Nimoy and celebrate the psychology of Spock.


Superman is an Immigrant Star-Child (Man of Steel Non-Spoiler Review)

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I ended last week’s psychology of Superman article with the following:

"If [Man of Steel] focuses on Clark’s loneliness as the last son of Krypton, the humanity of Jonathan and Martha Kent, and Superman’s sympathy for humans, it’ll be successful in rekindling our empathy for this superhero."

Was Zack Snyder successful in rebooting Superman? Yes, absolutely!

Man of Steel worked because it focused on Kal-El’s science fiction origin and Clark Kent's connection to humanity. Much of the story highlights Krypton, its culture, technology, and downfall. While reviews have criticized the Alien, Dune, Independence Day, and War of the Worlds feel of Man of Steel, I loved its star-child foundation. The geekiness of this film allows for interesting, albeit familiar, threads on cloning, first contact with aliens, and terraforming.

Man of Steel is best when it gets inside Clark Kent's head, specifically his loneliness as the last son of Krypton and his love for his adopted home of Earth. Critics find this part of the story "too dark", "melancholic", and claim it's an inappropriate "Dark Knight-ification of Superman”. I disagree – Superman has always been the story of an immigrant's escape from a doomed civilization. It's a dark origin.

Critics are also comparing Man of Steel to Richard Donner's 1978 Superman. Yes, the original Superman singlehandedly launched the superhero movie genre and everyone loves Christopher Reeve's portrayal of the superhero. But that movie isn’t sacred to me. You have to remember that it’s the film that had Superman reversing the rotation of the Earth in order to travel back in time to save Lois Lane. That might have worked in the 70s but audiences would never buy that today. Man of Steel has its flaws, but no one doubts that this Superman exists in our modern world (unlike 2006’s Superman Returns).

Man of Steel does have issues. The film's MacGuffin is completely disposable compared to the more interesting story of Clark’s transformation into Superman. Krypton looked too much like Avatar's Pandora. The defining moment between Clark and his dad didn't work for me (even though I adored Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent). The 2nd act has some major plot holes that require big leaps of faith (e.g. how Lois and Clark meet, the fortress of solitude, the phantom zone). The fights feel like they're lifted from the recent Injustice video game. While that type of building busting violence is awesome on the Xbox, it’s hard to follow on the big screen. Amy Adams’s Lois Lane was great, but she only worked in service of the male hero (Matt Zoller Seitz describes this disturbing trend in his review).  

Despite that long list of concerns, I deeply enjoyed this film. I don’t demand perfection from cinema, but I expect films to make me feel something and leave me with ideas that live on in my head. As the son of two immigrants, I identified with Clark’s feelings of being alone, different, and yet completely connected to the only home I’ve ever known – America. Will it occupy my thoughts? Not as much as The Dark Knight trilogy, but far more than any previous Superman film.

Rating: 7.5/10

Check out Slate’s review for a great comparison of superhero movies and medieval religious art. For a harsher critique, read AV Club.

Cultural Change Goes Both Ways, Just Like on Joss Whedon's Firefly

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Many people have never heard of Firefly. The TV show premiered in 2002, but was cancelled after 11 episodes (Fox set it up for failure by showing episodes out of order). Developed by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Avengers), Firefly stars some familiar faces including Nathan Fillion (Castle, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Desperate Housewives), Morena Baccarin (Homeland, V), and Summer Glau (Dollhouse, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). While the premise is familiar (a crew of renegades fight for survival on the outskirts of civilization), what makes Firefly truly a gem is its unique depiction of cultural change.

Firefly is a blend of American & Chinese culture

The Alliance flag is a literal combination of cultures. 

The Alliance flag is a literal combination of cultures. 

Firefly takes place in a future where the U.S. and China have merged into one diverse superpower called the Alliance, resulting in a combined Chinese and American culture. Everyone is bilingual in Mandarin and English, but each is used in different situations. For example, people swear exclusively in Mandarin, which conveniently let Joss Whedon get away some very colorful metaphors including 笨天生的一堆肉 (stupid inbred stack of meat), 真沒耐性的佛祖 (extraordinarily impatient buddha), and 羔羊中的孤羊 (motherless goats of all motherless goats). The Alliance government, values, and beliefs borrow from both the U.S. and the People's Republic of China. Dress, food, and entertainment are influenced by Eastern and Western tastes. This fusion results in a nation that has traces of both America and China, yet remains unique. This is exactly how cultural change happens in real life.

Cultural change has many outcomes

Mal's "browncoat" is a symbolic rejection of Alliance culture.

Mal's "browncoat" is a symbolic rejection of Alliance culture.

Most people think assimilation (individuals accept a new culture, reject the old) is the only outcome of cultural change. But that's just one possibility in acculturation – the process of change that results when two or more cultures come into contact with each other. Acculturation can also result in in separation (original culture is completely maintained), marginalization (original culture is lost and there is no contact with the new culture), or integration (elements of both the original and new culture are maintained). Acculturation changes individuals entering a culture as well as that society’s culture. The development of jazz, everyday use of the Yiddish “klutz”, and the global popularity of pizza all occurred because individuals from different cultures influenced society through acculturation.

Circumstances often influence the course of one’s acculturation. Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds fought (unsuccessfully) against the imperialism of the Alliance and was forced into its rule. He separated from many parts of Alliance culture (Mal refuses to dress like the Alliance, gets into fights with those celebrating Alliance holidays, and stays away from the geographical center of the Alliance), has integrated other aspects (he speaks both English and Mandarin and eats Alliance cuisine), and has become marginalized in one key area (after the Alliance took over his home, Mal lost faith in his religion). Mal shows us that acculturation doesn’t lead to uniformed change in a person. Instead, people change differently across many parts of culture depending upon their circumstances. Dr. Simon Tam, a man who grew up in the center of Alliance civilization, presents with a very different acculturative experience than Mal (one that is far more assimilated with the Alliance). Neither experience is right nor wrong, they’re just different.

Acculturation & Firefly helped me understand myself

Dr. Lau introduced me to acculturation and helped me understand the impact it had on my life. 

Dr. Lau introduced me to acculturation and helped me understand the impact it had on my life. 

Learning about acculturation as an undergrad had a big impact on me. As a child born and raised in California to immigrant parents, the experience of “culture clash” was a big part of my life. I dressed in jeans and t-shirts but my face didn’t look like most Americans. That juxtaposition didn't make me feel like I fit in. I remember being told to "go back where you come from" (the guy didn’t realize I was born in the neighboring suburb) while others criticized me for being too "white-washed" (which usually meant they wanted me to listen to more Tupac and less Nirvana). My psychology professor, Dr. Anna Lau, helped me realize that my identity wasn't exclusively one thing, but a mixture of many things. I spoke English and Urdu, adopted Western and Eastern values, craved kabobs and burgers. Pigeonholing me into just one category and judging me only on my appearance, as I did to myself and others did to me, ignored the richness of my experience. 

Maybe that's why I love Firefly so much. The show can't be classified into one category. It's a combination of science fiction, western, and horror genres. Seeing a show that celebrates the diversity of acculturation and is itself a blend of multiple influences helped me feel a little less strange and a little more unique.  

How has Firefly and/or acculturation influenced you? Sound off in the comments below. Haven't seen Firefly? Watch it instantly on Netflix, Amazon, or iTunes.