The Force Awakens Into Darkness: Series 10

Anyone else notice the hyperspace effect from the third Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer looked...a little familiar? 

Here's what it looks like compared with the warp effect from Star Trek Into Darkness and the Doctor Who time vortex. 

I like to believe they're going to rendezvous for the universe's most amazing timey wimey crossover event!

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.


Talking About the Future of Science? Don't Forget the Brain! (Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe Review)

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Two weeks ago, The History Channel aired a fantastic documentary about the science of the final frontier – Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe. If you haven’t seen it, watch the 90 minute video for free on their website.

If you're new to Star Trek, Secrets of the Universe gets you up to speed on the scientific foundation of the franchise. Through interviews with expert scientists, you'll learn about starship design, interstellar travel, planetary science, advanced propulsion, and the search for extraterrestrial life. You'll also get to hear A LOT of scientists geek out about how they were inspired to do what they do because of Star Trek (which is always a heartwarming for me since I had the same experience). 

Behind the scenes of the Enterprise bridge. 

Behind the scenes of the Enterprise bridge. 

Trekkies will love the beautiful behind the scenes footage from the making of Star Trek Into Darkness and the interview with J. J. Abrams. I’d even go as far as saying the Abrams interview will be healing for fans who were outraged over Abrams’s admission that he "never clicked" with Star Trek. Secrets of the Universe reassured me that that Abrams completely respects Star Trek and believes in its optimistic vision of united exploration.

Look how happy J. J. Abrams is creating his infamous lens flares!

Look how happy J. J. Abrams is creating his infamous lens flares!

There's just one thing that bugged me and it's a doozy – the documentary completely ignores the science of Star Trek’s optimism! Even if we invent the warp drive, build starships, and travel to other worlds, we're still going to destroy each other or kill extraterrestrial life if we don't implement the psychology of peace. Secrets of the Universe alludes to the dangers of alien first contact by describing our history of failed first encounters between cultural groups (see Columbus), but it doesn't have any psychologists talking about why first contact is difficult and what can be done to improve it.

Star Trek isn't about technology. It's about the evolution of our culture. To achieve Star Trek's utopia we’ll need to end prejudice, foster cooperation, and develop empathy for others. It’s not impossible – we have decades of brain and behavioral science showing us how to make it so.  

 Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe  beautifuly explained the warp drive (increase space behind you and decrease it in front of you), but it neglected the science of peace and cooperation. 

Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe beautifuly explained the warp drive (increase space behind you and decrease it in front of you), but it neglected the science of peace and cooperation. 

I still highly recommend Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe. I watched it twice and have no plans to remove it from my TiVo anytime soon. It’s a fascinating window into the science of our future. I just wish it had a scientist talking about how we can achieve the most important part of Star Trek – people working together to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Rating: 9/10


Below are my favorite quotations from Star Trek: Secrets of the Universe.

Design of the U.S.S. Enterprise

David Brin, Physicist, Science Fiction Author:

"I think the main thing was to completely break from the old Buck Rogers notion of these arrow shaped ships landing on their tails. The Enterprise, it's a naval ship. It's like Captain Cook discovering Australia, or the HMS Beagle, which carried Charles Darwin. These ships they had war fighting capacity but in addition they carried scientists. The captain he could sign treaties, he could negotiate. This naval vessel contains our civilization and this is how we're going to travel between stars."

Science of Warp Speed

Marc Millis, Propulsion Physicist:

"Imagine you wanted to move a car across a landscape. The warp drive idea is to say you manipulate the landscape and carry a chunk of land and move that and the car just rides along with it…You're no longer moving through space-time, you're moving chunks of space-time itself and the rules [of relativity] are different for that."

Creating the Federation

David Brin, Physicist, Science Fiction Author:

"What if we're the first to make it to the other side and make a civilization like the Federation in Star Trek, and what if everybody out there is waiting for us to do that – to go out and rescue them, to show them the way? That's a scary prospect. That's a burden. I think we can take it on. I think we can do it."

Inspiring Scientists

Gregory Chamitoff, NASA Astronaut:

"Star Trek is the inspiration for my life, it really is. What you guys are doing here [filming Star Trek] isn't just [creating an] incredible, spectacular movie...but [you're] inspiring a whole new generation of kids, like [me] when I was a little kid."

J. J. Abrams’s Childhood Inspiration

"I think as a kid I was more inspired by science fiction that I'm sure had been inspired by actual science. The idea of genetic mutation for example - extrapolate that and you have Godzilla or The Fly. The idea of space travel, what does it mean to be isolated for such a long time, inspired Rod Sterling to write the pilot for The Twilight Zone. Those are quantified examples of science inspiring entertainment that inspired me."

J. J. Abrams on Gene Roddenberry's Philosophy of Star Trek, Space Exploration, and Alien Life

"Roddenberry’s vision of the future was optimistic. His conceit was that there was no more conflict. It's a hard thing to be a parent and not desperately hope for a future that is as close to Roddenberry's as possible."
"I think when you look at what it is that Roddenberry wrote about going boldly where no one has gone before, humanity is trying to do that. I would hope we'd get the resources and the technology to travel to other moons, planets, and solar systems. It's an incredibly exciting to think what's out there."
"It is an absolute impossibly to look into a night sky and see all the stars and understand that each one is a sun and not know for a fact that we are surrounded by life everywhere we look. For anyone who looks out at those stars and is self-involved enough to think we are the only life in the universe is, I think, really misguided."
"It's a fascinating thing to work on a movie like Star Trek Into Darkness because it's science fiction but it's based on principals and ideas that I think are widely compelling which is people, all of us, working together that we are unified to explore this universe. There is something deeply relatable and a human natural curiosity - that when you actually think about it 'Oh my God, going off into space' - it's mind-blowing." 
"I think it's human nature to see a place in the distance and that place in the distance is never just a place it's always a destination. Humanity would never identify a place and not attempt to go there. Not to conquer, not to transform it, but to explore it."

J.J. Abrams Saved Star Trek and He'll Reignite Star Wars

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Now that Star Trek Into Darkness has been released, my attention turns to the next J.J. Abrams film - Star Wars: Episode VII.  

I've been wrestling with the news of Abrams controlling both franchises ever since the rumors were confirmed in January. Abrams made Star Trek cool again and I worried his departure could mean a return to crappy Star Trek movies. I started to think about other franchises with failed third acts (The Godfather, Terminator, X-Men) and kept tracing their failures to a change in leadership. The worst part was Abrams originally pledged allegiance to Star Trek and denied any interest in directing Star Wars. I felt betrayed. Lots of cognitive dissonance!

I've come to terms with this now. Having seen Star Trek Into Darkness, I'm confident in the strength of the franchise. Star Trek also has a history of flourishing under new directors. Just imagine what Alfonso Cuarón or Brad Bird could do at the helm of the Enterprise!  

Sending Abrams to Star Wars also repays a 34 year old debt Trekkies owe our Jedi brethren. Star Trek was cancelled in the 1960s and returned as a film series because of the success of the first Star Wars film. Now, after 3 lackluster prequels, it's Star Wars that needs re-energizing. Abrams will undoubtedly deliver a fantastic Episode VII, if he can keep his fanboy love of Star Wars at bay.  

But it seems like I'm in the minority on this. Lots of Trekkies are upset about Abrams's role in Star Trek and his treatment of canon in the new film. Sujay Kumar's explores this issue at The Daily Beast. Here's a preview:

The man at the helm of the Star Trek reboot is making the seventh installment of Star Wars. The same guy controls over four decades' worth of intergalactic pop culture. The Greek chorus of geeks, ignored by Hollywood for seven years between Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Star Trek, should be mad as hell. J.J. Abrams is genre bogarting. 

Check out his article for more on Abrams and the future of Star Trek/Star Wars (including a quote about me turning my couch into a Return of the Jedi  speeder bike).

How do you feel about J.J. Abrams controlling the future of both franchises?

Star Trek Into Darkness is Cool and Relevant, So Stop Complaining Trekkies (Non-Spoiler Film Review)

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Note: No spoilers in this review, but I can't guarantee the comments will remain spoiler-free.

I loved J.J. Abrams's 2009 Star Trek - it made me believe in the future of the franchise. Star Trek Into Darkness delivers on the promise of the first film by giving us more of what made the original Star Trek series great - a relevant story and iconic characters. But the blockbuster scale of this movie is what makes Into Darkness so cool, why everyone should see it, and what has (mistakenly) alienated so many Trekkies.   

Post 9/11 Story

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In the last film, the Federation experienced a 9/11 event. Into Darkness deals with the fallout of that attack. We see just how far the Federation goes to protect itself from the threat of terrorism.

The film deals with many of the issues America faced after 9/11 - tension between morality and national security, a rise in xenophobia, an attempt to understand terrorism, and resilience against trauma (see the psychology of Star Trek Into Darkness).

The story has mass appeal with just enough social commentary for fans of science fiction to chew on (at least as much as Star Trek IV, Star Trek VI, and Star Trek: Insurrection had). 

Characters You Love

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Star Trek (2009) was the origin story of this crew. In the new film, the crew has become a family. This leads to some wonderful moments of humor, tension, and sadness. The cast is very comfortable in their roles and I completely embraced their portrayal of these iconic characters.

Newcomers will enjoy the camaraderie of the Enterprise crew and the deliciously evil villain. Trekkies will love the Kirk/Spock arc. We see what Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) meant when he told the younger Spock that his relationship with Kirk would "define you both in ways you cannot yet realize." Because of their friendship, Kirk becomes the Captain he was destined to be and Spock learns to embrace his human side.

Blockbuster Scale

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This is exactly what a summer blockbuster should be - it's big, fun, and exciting. But it's not just phasers and photon torpedoes - you really care about what's happening onscreen. Credits go to J. J. Abrams, his production team, the writers, and Michael Giacchino for creating a Star Trek universe that moves at a frenetic speed while remaining true to the ideals of Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek).

"The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few"

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It wouldn't be a Star Trek film without enraging hardcore Trekkies. Some are upset about the story’s reinterpretation of canon, its "dumbing down" of Star Trek's intellectualism, and the throw away references to previous movies and episodes. But this film isn't made for the outliers, no genre film is.

Movies have to work for a global audience. As Spock said, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." To make Star Trek work as a blockbuster, it has to be easy for people to jump in without pre-existing knowledge of the franchise. Complex source material must be streamlined while elements of original stories need to be included for devoted fans. That's a hard thing to balance. Into Darkness has its issues, but it offers enough to satisfy the needs of the many.

A successful blockbuster brings new fans into a franchise. The J.J. Abrams films have already done this for Star Trek - people who have never watched Star Trek are flocking to see Into Darkness (like my friend Duaba). All this excitement is good for the franchise – Star Trek remains incredibly popular on Netflix, The Next Generation is being delicately remastered in HD, we've got a great ongoing comic book series, and we’ll probably get a new film in time for Star Trek’s 50th anniversary in 2016. 

Sometime this decade we'll see Star Trek return to TV, the format in which it thrives. Like LOST, Battlestar Galactica, and The Walking Dead, this new Star Trek will be a complex science fiction masterpiece. When we see that version of Star Trek return, credits will go to J.J. Abrams for making it cool to be a Trekkie again.

Rating: 8.5/10

Revised Star Trek movie rankings:

  • Amazing - Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness.
  • Watchable - Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Star Trek: Insurrection.
  • Mediocre - Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Star Trek: Generations, Star Trek: Nemesis.

The NY Times has a good critical review of the movie. EW has a more positive view of the film. I agree most with A.V. Club's review.