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

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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.


J.J. Abrams's Star Trek Makes Us Believe in the Future Again (Film Review)

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Note : I'll be sharing a series of posts about Star Trek this month to celebrate the release of the new movie, Star Trek Into Darkness. The following is my unaltered (with updated links and images) May 2009 review of J.J. Abrams's first Star Trek film, originally published on a now defunct website. Keep in mind I wrote this way before learning the lessons of effective writing, so forgive me for my fanboy hyperboles. Check out my current thoughts on this film at the end of this post.       


SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't seen Star Trek (2009) yet, raise shields and engage evasive maneuvers!

I used to think Star Trek was a boring show for nerds who were obsessed with space. Then in 1991, my brother took me to see Star Trek VI. The movie was a fast-paced who-done-it murder-mystery action adventure about racism, espionage, and the end of cold war. It broke all the stereotypes I had for the franchise. In the proceeding months, I devoured everything Star Trek. I’ve been a Trekkie every since and it’s changed my life.

Star Trek instilled in me a curiosity about science, energized a love of learning, and nurtured hope and optimism about the future. It made me value other cultures and beliefs. It is the primary reason I sought an education and it set me down the path that I am on now.

Years later, Star Trek died. As Entertainment Weekly put it, “...Star Trek made the classic business blunder of the 1990s - it overexpanded.” After years of being saturated by recycled stories, the franchise lost its audience. In 2005, Paramount finally pulled the plug on the waning franchise and canceled the fifth and final Star Trek TV series.

I expected Star Trek to be shelved away for at least a decade. Yet, just a year later, it was announced that J.J. Abrams (producer of Felicity, Alias, and Lost) was hired to create a new Star Trek film. While Abrams was more than capable of producing a compelling sci-fi film (see Lost season 1), if it wasn’t done right (see Lost season 2) it would completely bury the franchise.

Since Star Trek is already the highest grossing film of the year, it’s safe to say Abrams has successfully rebooted the franchise. I think the film is fantastic, and here’s why.

Story

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The genius lies in the decision of the screenwriters (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) to set the story in an alternate timeline. By doing so, the writers freed themselves from the previous 600 hours of established Star Trek canon. Most prequels fail because we know who will live, who will die, and how the story will end (see Star Wars Episodes I, II, III). Here, everything is back up for grabs (like the genocide of the Vulcan people). At the same time, the film honors what has come before, directly through Leonard Nimoy’s Spock and indirectly through numerous Star Trek easter eggs (e.g. red shirt, Admiral Archer’s beagle, Pike in the wheelchair, mind-altering slug, Kobayashi Maru, Kolinahr, etc).

Cast

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I was surprised at how much I believed Chris Pine as Kirk. He had the toughest job - filling William Shatner’s enormous shoes. But Pine played the character with just enough bravado, confidence, and sex appeal to be endearing but not douchey. Zachary Quinto was perfect as a conflicted and emotional Spock. Karl Urban’s portrayal of Dr. “Bones” McCoy was largely an imitation, but it worked because the character is so likable. Simon Pegg captured Scotty’s zest and humor. Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, with her mixture of confidence and warmth, was the breakout performance of the film. It’s hard to judge John Cho’s Sulu (he didn’t do much beyond the fight scene). Anton Yelchin’s Chekov was a little heavy on the Russian accent, but I loved his eagerness. I wanted to see much more of both Bruce Greenwood’s Captain Pike and Faran Tahir’s Captain Robau. Eric Bana’s performance as Nero was menacing, layered, and tragic. Leonard Nimoy was so flawless as Spock that he nearly overshadowed the rest of the cast.

Direction

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Abrams’ direction in Star Trek is light-years ahead of his first film, Mission Impossible: III. Star Trek’s battles are epic and the character moments intimate. The editing moves at warp speed, keeping you glued to the screen. Major kudos for adding engine trails to the warp engines, changing the phasers to bullets instead of lasers, making engineering look like engineering, turning the viewscreen into a functional tool, and adding silence to space. Next time, ease up on the lens flares. They became pretty distracting during bridge sequences.

Special Effects

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Finally, we get to see what the Star Trek universe looks like on a Star Wars budget! Industrial Light and Magic really outdid themselves. Sound effects supervisor Ben Burtt (of Star Wars fame) also deserves special mention for integrating old 1960s Trek sounds with modern effects (e.g. classic sounds on the bridge, revamped transporter and warp effects). Both Burtt and ILM made this universe come alive in a way we’ve never seen or heard before and both deserve Academy-Awards for their work on Star Trek.

Score

Photo via  Scoring Sessions .

Photo via Scoring Sessions.

Michael Giacchino (Lost, The Incredibles, Ratatouille), would not have been my first pick to score this film. While I love most of his work, I didn’t think he could pull off a Jerry Goldsmith or James Horner styled space opera score. And he didn’t, his score sounds more like a superhero film score. I really want to hate it, but I can’t - the themes just fit the feel of the movie. Spock’s theme is the clear standout for me, beautifully capturing the wonder, elegance, and tragedy of the Vulcans. The original Star Trek theme song (appearing during the end credits) is also memorable. Like the rest of the film, it’s brilliantly updated and fresh.

The movie is not without its faults. It asks you to take a big leap of faith regarding Kirk. In the span of hours, Kirk goes from suspended cadet, to stowaway, first officer, and ultimately captain of the Federation’s most powerful ship. It’s not plausible and worse, it changes the character from a guy who earned his position through hard work to a guy with a destiny (a la Anakin Skywalker). I know the writers didn’t want it to take three movies for Kirk to become Kirk (a la Anakin Skywalker), but I don’t like this explanation and it doesn’t feel consistent with the rest of the Star Trek universe.

That being said, I’m a very big fan of this movie. It’s greatest accomplishment is in making Star Trek fun, exciting, and relevant again. The movie cuts across all demographics, including Trekkie/non-Trekkie, and offers something for everyone.

To quote Captain Pike, Star Trek “is important.” It was envisioned in a period of social, economic, and political unrest. Star Trek created a venue to discuss the issues of our time and gave us hope that we would not only get through our global crises, but we will grow as a species. Now, the world is a mess again. Our economies have failed, Americans are polarized on gay marriage, extremism threatens us domestically and abroad, and the climate is changing each year. I can’t think of a better time for Star Trek’s bright and optimistic vision of our future to be with us again.

Rating: 9/10

Revised Star Trek movie rankings (best to worst): ST6, ST8, ST11, ST4, ST2, ST3.....ST9, ST10...ST7, ST1, ST5.  


May 1st, 2013 Addendum:

I'm surprised at how much I agree with my original review - watching 2009's Star Trek is still a lot of fun and makes me excited about the future of the franchise. 

However, I don't know what I was thinking when I said Nero was "menacing, layered, and tragic" - the character was pretty one dimensional (though he's more fleshed out in the Countdown comic prequel). 

I also forgot how conflicted I was about Giacchino scoring the movie. Since he's become one of my favorite composers, it seems silly to question his attachment to Star Trek

I still don't like Kirk's rise to power (though it seems like there will be repercussions for that in Star Trek Into Darkness) or the use of lens flares (especially after all the excessive ones in Super 8). 

A lot of fans were upset that this film "felt like any other action movie" and that it was light on the social commentary. I get that, and this is definitely not the Star Trek I grew up with, but the "genocide of the Vulcan people" drew a parallel to September 11th and setup Star Trek Into Darkness's themes of terrorism. We'll get more social commentary in the sequel (I hope).