There’s This Book I’m Reading, episode 9


Star Wars bookWhile killing time in a bookstore with my sister and brother about three weeks ago, I came across a book with an intriguing title: Star Wars Psychology. (edited by Travis Langley, PhD, 2015.) Upon taking it off the shelf and looking at it, I found that it is a series of short essays by various Star Wars fans who also happen to have knowledge (and, in most cases, advanced degrees) in psychology or related fields. As a side note, I later looked at the contributor bios in the back and was fascinated by just how cool and nerdy most of those people are. One of them, Star Wars fan by the name of Jay Scarlet, is even a librarian like me, except cooler because he has a master’s degree in psychology as well. Anyway, as you have probably guessed, I purchased the book.

I haven’t finished reading it, but I probably will yet this evening or perhaps tomorrow. I recommend it for anyone who has interest in both Star Wars and psychology. It is slightly less academic than I had initially expected, making it a relatively light read, especially given the brevity of most of the essays. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At the very least, the book is an analysis of the motivations of certain Star Wars characters. Just for fun, here are my comments on a few of the chapters that particularly caught my attention.

The second chapter in the book, written by Jenna Busch and Janina Scarlet, PhD,  is “So You Want to be a Jedi? Learning the Ways of the Force through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.” I don’t know a lot about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, but I was already aware that it focuses largely on the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness, which is similar to but not synonymous with meditation, has received a lot of positive attention in the media and mental health world. I have mixed feelings about the very concept, because so many people praise it as a cure to mental illness or a way of solving everyday life problems, neither of which is scientifically feasible. However, I am given to understand that research does show that practicing mindfulness is helpful in reducing stress and handling emotions without shutting them down. Contrary to how some people describe it, mindfulness is not a mystical experience or a secret technique. Busch and Scarlet define it as “paying attention to the present moment on purpose, without judgment or distraction,” which is really the same as what the word means in vernacular usage. The writers of this essay assert that mindfulness is a core aspect of Jedi training. It may sound a little funny, but seeing mindfulness framed as a Jedi-related concept helps me to understand it as a beneficial and legitimate concept.

Another psychological idea that this book clarified a little for me is self-actualization, as described by the famous humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow. It’s a phrase that I’ve heard quite a lot, but I didn’t have a clear sense of what exactly it meant. Apparently, it just has to do with feeling content with who you are and/or where you are in life. In this book, the concept was described using the example of Darth Maul, in chapter four, by Travis Langley and Jenna Busch. (Apparently I like her writing, since I’ve mentioned both the parts she wrote) Darth Maul doesn’t get much screen time, really, and his movie is my least favorite of the six, but he is a pretty cool villain. Busch, Langley, and Sam Witwer (who voices Darth Maul in the animated Clone Wars series) describe Darth Maul as being self-absorbed, but highly insecure, in contrast to being self-actualized. It’s interesting seeing self-actualization described as an antonym for self-absorption. But it makes sense that extreme insecurity is just as self-centered as over-confidence.

Although I find psychology fascinating in general, I don’t often gravitate towards topics relating to gender psychology; however, the aspects of this book that touch upon those topics interested me very much. (Not to mention the fact that this book took a very balanced approach to gender psychology, which I appreciated.) The chapter on “Grief and Masculinity: Anakin the Man” by Billy San Juan, PsyD, describes the emotional journey that led Anakin to the dark side. While no one who has watched Episodes II and III will be unfamiliar with that journey, it’s fascinating and even somewhat eye-opening to observe the way that parallels some people’s real-world experiences. And a later chapter, (“A Distressing Damsel: Leia’s Heroic Journey” by Mara Wood) describes Princess Leia’s character development throughout the original trilogy by drawing from the research and writings of a therapist named Maureen Murdock, whose works I am now interested in reading myself.

There are a number of other particularly interesting parts of this book, such as the short passages on personality traits that come at the end of each of the five parts. But in the interest of relative brevity, I will conclude here. If you want to hear more, read it yourself. (And don’t worry about spoilers; it was written before The Force Awakens came into being.)


There’s this Book I’m Reading, episode 1

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It seems to be a commonly accepted idea that there is a dichotomy between logic and emotion; that rational thought and instinctive decisions are opposites. Although it’s obviously true that there are different kinds of thought processes and that logical thought and emotional feelings don’t work in the same way, I think it’s an incorrect oversimplification to see them as comprising a dichotomy. I don’t think it even makes sense to imagine a logic/emotion spectrum from Spock to McCoy, because, in my opinion anyway, there is actually a relationship between logic and emotion. Otherwise, why would it be frustrating to be unable to understand something? Or why would it be exciting to learn something that you’d always wondered? Why would strategy games be so much fun, and why would schoolwork be stressful?

Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005.

On the other hand, I’ve also heard the idea that logic and emotion actually are more or less the same thing and the real distinction is between instinctive thought that takes place subconsciously and step-by-step thinking that takes place consciously. There’s a book I’m reading now; it’s called Blink and it’s by someone named Malcolm Gladwell, who is apparently not a psychologist, but he does get his information from experimental psychologists. He, along with the psychologists he cites, believes that snap decisions and first impressions are actually reliable because the fast-thinking subconscious process that forms them is just as rational as the slower conscious thought process. To quote from the book, “In high-stakes, fast-moving situations, we don’t want to be… dispassionate and purely rational… We don’t want to stand there endlessly talking through our options. Sometimes we’re better off if the mind behind the locked door makes our decisions for us.” (I used the ellipses to avoid mentioning the Iowa ventromedial patients, because I’d have to quote an entire two pages in order to explain who the Iowa ventromedial patients are and what they have to do with decision-making thought processes.)

The problem with reading these kinds of psychology books is that many of them are more pseudoscientific than scientific, and some are bordering on the mystical. For example, there have been multiple times that I’ve started reading a ‘psychological’ book about dreams only to find that it places an almost occult prophetic significance on them, even though the book is categorized as a scientific book. As fascinated as I am by the actual psychological theories and research behind things like personalities, dreams, the nature of intelligence, and so forth, I have realized that I have to be very suspicious of books that claim to be about those things without being based in academically factual information. I kind of expected this book to be one of those non-scientific ones; it seemed like it might be a ‘how to tap into the hidden and mystical powers of your brain’ kind of book. I decided to read it anyway. Although some of the claims it makes seem a little outlandish, they are all backed up by official scientific experiments done by official psychologists.

(I have omitted the following several paragraphs because they were going on for quite a while and it didn’t look like I was going to finish writing that bit anytime soon.  I eventually decided that since this is a blog post and not an academic paper, I don’t have to cite multiple examples from the book in order to make every point. Therefore, for the sake of brevity, I hereby skip to the last three paragraphs.)

I am finding that book very interesting, and I have no doubt that there’s something to the claims Gladwell makes, but I don’t think he’s entirely right about the reliability of instinctual thought. My instincts don’t always tell me things that lead to accurate assumptions and good decisions. Sometimes, I have a feeling that I really ought to sleep up several hours late and then spend the rest of the day playing scrabble and watching science fiction instead of going to classes. That’s not some kind of hypersentient instinct, though; it’s just me being a lazy stupidhead. Then my conscious mind has to tell me that I’m not allowed to do that. Or sometimes, I have a paranoid feeling that I’m being followed and watched by invisible evil monsters, but that’s not because my subconscious brain is picking up on subtle clues and coming to rational conclusions. It’s just because I have a very weird imagination, and my conscious mind has to figure out that my imagination is just being silly again and that I’m going to have to ignore it. I can’t even imagine what a weirdo I’d be if I always paid attention to my instincts and feelings.

Gladwell underestimates the weirdness of the human mind. Although he does acknowledge the effects of false or overly generalized stereotypes, (and discusses them at great length) I still have the impression that he is ignoring the sheer number of variables that affect thought, and the fact that a person usually can’t even tell what factors led to a certain decision or impression unless the thought process was conscious. The point of his book is that people can learn to sort out the different things that affect their subconscious thoughts and to rely upon the logical subconscious thoughts for all time-sensitive decision-making. He acknowledges the value of stopping to think things through, but argues that it isn’t necessary and isn’t often worth the time it takes. Gut feelings, he claims, are just as rational as deductive reasoning.

My point is this: I don’t think that logic and emotions are entirely separate or entirely connected. It makes sense that intuitive feelings sometimes can come from a quick and automatic but analytical thought process, but intuitive feelings and snap judgments can also be determined by completely random factors. Countless studies have shown that subtle things like the weather or the color of the walls can influence someone’s attitude or mood, and it’s obvious even without any scientific research that people’s thought processes are affected by whatever else they may have on their minds. The studies that Gladwell cites demonstrate that observation and logic also can affect our thoughts on a subconscious level, but they can’t disprove the presence of countless other variables.  I’m obviously not a scientist, but even I know that you can’t make valid scientific assertions without analyzing the variables in the experiment and considering whether the experiment conditions are too contrived to allow the results to correspond to real life. Although I think that this book is very interesting, and there may be some truth to some of his ideas, I don’t think that Gladwell’s theory is valid enough to be applicable in reality.

The difference between introverted and extroverted people

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A while ago, I noticed an internet trend that seemed kind of funny to me at the time. There seemed to be a lot of people uploading videos on youtube in which they sat in front of their webcam and talked about being introverted. They would talk about how extroverted people don’t really understand introverted people, they complain that they’re stereotyped as being shy and/or antisocial, they talk about how incorrect those perceptions are, and they usually at some point comment that the internet has really helped them to open up and communicate with other people. (In most cases, these are people who upload a lot of videos to youtube and have a fairly large following) I also have seen quite a few online articles that made more or less the same points. The reason that I was amused was that there didn’t seem to be a good reason for this trend. It seems funny that people in our society are so quick to believe that they’re in an oppressed minority that common personality traits are now considered to be minority groups. But then I started noticing other types of online articles with titles such as ‘Careers for Introverts’ and ‘Jobs for Shy People’ and ‘Good Jobs for People Who Don’t Like People’. (I’m not sure why people who write about the job market seem to be particularly interested in making this distinction, but that’s where I’ve seen it most) It’s as if the writers of these articles actually think that personality is a bigger factor in career choices than job skills, or maybe that one’s personality determines what job skills that person has. Of course, personality plays a role in determining what kind of job a person can do best, but introversion/extroversion is only one of a wide variety of factors that matter. And those ideas of personality aren’t restricted to people who write online articles. In my experience it is true that most particularly outgoing people don’t really connect with people who aren’t naturally friendly. Some people do make false assumptions about others who have different personalities, and so maybe there is some need for introverted people to clear up some misunderstandings.

According to the Big Five system of personality categorization, (which, unlike the Myers-Briggs system, measures people along spectrums instead of dividing them into categories) I am just about as introverted as a person can be. Most people who know me would probably agree with that. My family would probably laugh and say that unless I lied on the questionnaire, it is clearly flawed, because I don’t know how to shut up. Incidentally, that’s one of the things that the Internet Introvert Awareness Advocates (yes, I just now made up that term) always make sure to clarify; introverted people don’t always keep their mouths shut, they just are only talkative in certain situations. I usually am quiet in social situations, but there are certain topics which, once I get started on them, will keep me talking until someone finds the duct tape and sticks my mouth shut. (Okay, nobody has ever done that to me before, but I’m sure some people have thought about it) But those are fairly isolated incidents which usually surprise anyone who doesn’t know me very well. For the most part, I don’t have much to say except in one-to-one conversations with someone I already know, and on the internet. Classmates are often surprised when, after friending me on facebook, they discover that I actually do have a sense of humor (and a weird one at that) and strong opinions about quite a lot of things.

Unlike most Internet Introvert Awareness Advocates, though, I don’t do things like posting frequent youtube videos of myself sitting in front of a webcam and talking about my opinions or life in general. I have, over the course of two or three years, posted quite a few youtube videos, (43, to be exact) but they aren’t webcam vlogs; the few that actually show me are either scripted skits or documentaries of gingerbread house construction. When it comes to internet communication, I am much more comfortable with blogging, so that I can voice my thoughts and opinions without letting anyone else actually see my face or hear my voice. It’s a lovely system and much less awkward than stuff like talking to people, either by internet video or in person.

This is what free time looks like in my world.

That’s pretty much what it means to be an introvert. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like people, don’t like communicating with people, or don’t have things to say to people. It just means that I’m not really in my comfort zone in social situations, even if it’s just a casual conversation. Extroverted people are in their natural habitat with other people; they like to talk because it feels natural and they like to do everything with friends because they don’t like solitude. Introverted people are in their natural habitat alone. I can and do enjoy spending time with other people, but it’s because I like those specific people, not because I like being with people in general. I also enjoy spending time alone, and it’s in those situations where I am most in control of my brain and can decide for myself what the topic of my thoughts should be.

This is what social interaction looks like in my world.