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Star Trek Goes Boldly Into Identity

From outer space to inner emotions, a new book delves into the psychology of "Star Trek," using the beloved characters to help us understand more about ourselves.

When writer and producer Gene Roddenberry created "Star Trek," he crafted the show to help examine a variety of issues in a way that was safe for viewers to experience. "Star Trek Psychology: The Mental Frontier" looks into some of these issues, including identity and the way in which we answer the question "Who am I?"

Scott Jordan and Eric Wesselmann are professors in the Department of Psychology at Illinois State University and contributors to the book "Star Trek Psychology: The Mental Frontier." Wesselmann noted that the wide diversity of  characters in the "Star Trek" universe provides a good launching pad for a discussion about identity. 

"We can talk about what it means to be a person, how you interact with other people, whether they're members of your in group or your out group, and you can do it in a way that is divorced from the typical socio/political baggage that we have when we talk about real world things. But it doesn't take long before you can make the connections to your own life."

Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT
Eric Wesselmann, left, and Scott Jordan live long and prosper as GLT's Psych Geeks.

The character of Spock from the original series demonstrates the conflicts that can arise when there is an internal struggle regarding identity. As half human and half Vulcan, Spock must navigate the challenges presented by his biracial identity, struggling with his cool, rational Vulcan side and his emotional human side.

"In the case of Spock and these two aspects of his identity, he sees them as dualities," said Wesselmann. "The two sides can't be reconciled, at least not stereotypically."

The result of that is a cognitive dissonance that the character must struggle with in order to reconcile his identity.

"I think the Spock character represents one point on a continuum of the balance between emotion and rationality," said Jordan. "I think Spock comes across as someone who is trained in being highly rational and he inhibits himself. He's one aspect in that relationship between rationality and emotion, and then there's Captain Kirk, who is happy and sad when he wants to be. The tension between those two really creates a space for conversions and for reconciliations and for understanding."

"Star Trek Psychology: The Mental Frontier" is available on Sterling Books.

Listen to the interview.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.