Science fiction & Science fact: What they tell us about emotions

Science fiction (Sci-Fi) is a genre of speculative fiction dealing with imaginative concepts such as futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life. – Wikipedia

I’ve shared this idea with people that one of the ways that you can get the sense of modern society’s values and concerns at any given time is by looking at the science fiction of the era. I think this works because the setting for this type of fiction is “the future,” imagined through the lens of the present. For things that a society feels are good, valuable, and already fully realized, then in the future these wonderful things will likely remain mostly unchanged. Or alternatively, in the dystopian future, the story’s plot is built around the premise that somehow we’ve lost our way and things need to be restored back to “when things were good.” Sci-fi also tells us that if in the present we believe that something needs fixing, then as we project into the fictional future, we either create an idealized society where we’ve overcome these shortcomings, or alternatively, in the dystopian future, the plot device is such that our present problems have reached their natural catastrophic end. So maybe time travelers need to come back to our time to fix it…or else.

The Beliefs That Science Fiction Reveal

Case in point, the Star Trek franchise started as a TV series in 1966. In the real world in the 1960’s, there were tensions between the U.S. and Russia with dueling ideologies played out in conflicts in Cuba and a costly war in Vietnam. The Civil Rights Movement was at its peak, bringing to light the inherent injustices of discriminating against other human beings for the color of their skin. The space race had begun in the context of global one-upsmanship, culminating with American astronauts landing on the moon in 1969. So in Gene Roddenberry’s vision set 300 years in the future, Earth was free of war. We were not only a multicultural and gender equal society, but also one that included other species from other planets. The primary objective of space travel was exploration and learning. The real world problems of the 1960’s were all solved by 2260. The tone of the show was optimistic.

However, something more subtle about the values of 1960’s society was also being reflected by how some of the main characters were portrayed. Every human character was flawed because of some core emotional trait. Captain Kirk was always bordering on being too passionate, which created the tension that perhaps his emotions could cause him to do something impulsive and irrational. Every “dammit Jim!” reminded you that McCoy had an anger problem, but at least he was a good doctor. Scotty was always on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but fortunately he was brilliant at fixing the warp engines.

Now Spock on the other hand, he represented something more ideal. Lucky for him, he was only half-human, so he wasn’t vulnerable to these emotional human frailties because he had something superior – his Vulcan logic. Because that’s what people in the 1960’s also believed – that emotions were primitive and a hindrance, and that intellect was superior.

(Spoilers ahead if you aren’t familiar with Star Trek lore. If you are a true Star Trek fan, there’s nothing here that you don’t already know)

The perfect illustration of this belief comes from the pivotal scene at the end of the second Star Trek movie, the Wrath of Khan, where Spock sacrifices himself for the sake of his friends. Spock is stoic on one side of the glass dying of radiation poisoning, while Kirk is an emotional basket-case on the other side. Spock tells Kirk not to grieve because his actions were logical. Kirk cries anyways. So do grown men in the audience. Spock is strong. Kirk is weak.

In 2009, the Star Trek franchise was rebooted under the direction of J.J. Abrams. As is the case for many franchise reboots, there was a desire to keep what was great about the original franchise, but modernize the characters and storylines for the present.

The new movie was well received and of course a sequel was made. That sequel ended up being a modern remake of the Wrath of Khan, which of course had to have a callback to the same radiation chamber scene from the original. However, this time it’s Kirk, in a moment of desperation, fear, courage, love, loyalty, and pain – who is activated to act to save his crew, but at the same time exposes himself to deadly amounts of radiation. In the context of the scene, the act is intentionally driven by emotion, and yet the act is not impulsive. It’s also not illogical. It’s also not viewed as weak. It was the right thing to do.

Also as part of the role reversal, it’s Spock on the other side of the glass, seeing his friend die. And Spock – normally stoic, logical, unemotional – well he loses it. But not losing it like a Vulcan with one small tear out of the corner of his eye kind of way. More like an “I’m going to rip Khan’s #%*^@! head off” kind of way, and proceeds to demonstrate that Vulcans are superior to humans in both their intellect and in their ability to channel emotions into purposeful and movie-climax-worthy levels of aggression.

So for both Kirk and Spock, it’s emotion, not pure logic, that initiates successful resolution.

Now I’m not sure if J.J. Abrams was that intentional about making the point that society’s feelings about the usefulness and purpose of emotion has changed. In fact, I think that this just shows that somewhere between 1966 and now, as a culture we’ve come to a general better understanding of our emotions, and that they are not primitive, weak, flaws, or hindrances. Instead, our general intuition tells us that there is value in having feelings.

The Truth That Science Validates

Science is a systematic enterprise that creates, builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. – Wikipedia

It wasn’t until the around the 1980’s that formal emotions research started gaining traction, so we’ll have to give 1960’s society a pass for not having the most accurate views about the purpose and value of emotion. Specifically, it was the pioneering research of American psychologist Paul Ekman that validated that emotional displays are universal in the human experience, regardless of gender, race, culture, or age. In addition he identified the core emotions that we all feel (creatively illustrated in the recent Disney movie Inside Out for which Dr. Ekman served as a primary consultant) and helped us to understand the purpose of emotion from the context of nonverbal communication and motivation.

The work of Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg links the expression of feelings as a reaction to needs. Needs that are met lead to positive emotions. Needs that are unmet lead to unpleasant emotions. Learning to communicate and decode these signs can facilitate a person having their needs met by others. In practice, this technique has been taught through an exercise called Nonviolent Communication (NVC), built around non-judgmental observations, expression of feelings, validation of needs, and responsive actions to reconcile those needs. His experience has been that proficiency in these skills lead to more positive emotion, better relationships, and overall wellbeing. Research has subsequently proven that Rosenberg’s intuitive insights are pretty spot on.

Daniel Goleman popularized the idea of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) in 1995 with his research-based book of the same name. There is some disagreement amongst scholars on whether Emotional Intelligence is best described as abilities or traits (probably both), but overall the research validates that the level of competency in utilizing emotion is linked to more effective social relationships, leadership qualities, and other measures of life success.

Another way of understanding these abilities is to reconcile that EQ is fact part of our overall IQ. The “intelligent” part of emotion includes the responsive interpretations about context and relevancy that add substance to the more observational, analytical, and problem solving parts of our brain:

It’s our emotion that makes something that is curious and interesting feel insightful.

It’s our emotion that makes an observation feel relevant.

It’s our emotion that makes an experience feel significant.

In other words, it’s our emotion that takes “knowledge” and transforms it into genuine understanding. It’s the difference between “I knew that” and “Oh…now I get it.”

The emotional responses themselves give us more information to analyze, which in turn causes us to think more deeply and with greater complexity and nuance.

“Why did I react that way?”

“Why does this situation seem so familiar? What does this remind me of?”

“Feeling this way makes me realize that what I really need right now is ________.”

“That’s what I was missing!”

“I need more of this in my life.”

“Of course! That makes sense now!”

The idea of EQ was expanded to a related concept of Social Intelligence, meaning that our ability to best utilize our emotions directly relates to the success we have in our relationships. Goleman describes Social Intelligence being connected to Emotional Intelligence in this way:

“Empathy and social skills are social intelligence, the interpersonal part of emotional intelligence. That’s why they look alike.”

Empathy is the experience of accurately inhabiting the thoughts and feelings of others and finding something within us that resonates with that experience. In order to do this successfully, we have to have enough self-awareness and introspection to be able to accurately interpret those feelings within ourselves. So our own emotional self-awareness directly correlates with our ability to empathize with others. I’ve previously written about how empathy is the determining factor regarding the success or failure we have in every interaction we have in life.

Goleman’s research, along with multidisciplinary studies looking at wellbeing and health, have shown links between one’s social skills and quality of relationships with broad measures of success, physical health, and wellbeing. So a high Emotional Intelligence leads to a high Social Intelligence, which leads to a good life.

Thinking and Feeling Is Best

Born out of these feelings is also the origin of our intentions and motivations to take resolving action. “Now that I understand this, I really ought to…”

In contrast, a “paralysis by analysis” is the example of detached contemplation without enough emotion. It’s overthinking things at the expense of taking any action, which is actually kind of dumb. When we are emotionally dysregulated, such as when we are “frozen with fear,” our ability to access our higher order reasoning is limited, which again leads to a different kind of paralysis – too much feeling, not enough thinking. So thinking and feeling is really better than thinking or feeling alone.

Studies with functional brain imaging, show that our highest and most complex mental abilities are achieved when parts of the brain that initiate emotion are simultaneously working with the parts of our brain used for evaluation and planning. In other words, the old Vulcan idea that we need to suppress our emotions in order to think logically is not supported by direct observation of the human brain. It’s emotion and intellect working together that makes us most optimal.

So the purpose and value of emotion is to serve crucial functions in our communication, our connections, and our competency.

Real world consequences of not being emotionally proficient lead to problems in our relationships, and yet relationships are the most common way to experience meaningfulness in life and the best determining factor in regards to personal growth and broad life success. What is also lost when we don’t utilize our emotions effectively is that we are less insightful, less motivated, and less energized to implement the best strategies that our “logical” minds can come up with.

Emotions are important.

Emotions are necessary.

Emotions are good.

So imagine our world, at some time in the future where everyone values their emotion as much as their intellect. In this world, people are happier. There’s less conflict and misunderstanding. Relationships are deeper. We are more able to consistently accomplish what we set out to do. Life in general is more fulfilling. Here’s the thing though. This doesn’t have to be a science fiction futuristic fantasy. Science non-fiction tells us that this imagined future is possible right now. We don’t have to wait 300 years. We can validate our emotions today and in our near future. Even Spock would say it’s the most logical thing to do.

So of course it must be said – emotions are big part of how we “live long and prosper.”


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: