Could Star Trek’s Mr. Spock Really Exist?

(About a 5 minute read)

Like most sensible people, I am firmly convinced that around 2,400 years ago in Athens, Greece, Plato invented Mr. Spock.

Of course, I do not believe that Plato invented all the details of Mr. Spock right down to his curiously arched eyebrows and pointy ears.  So far as I know, those details were worked out by Gene Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy, and their band.  But the essential notion that a hyper-rational person would have few or no emotions — that was Plato.

In Plato’s view, emotions and thought were clearly distinct, and the only connection between the two was that emotions could mess with thought.  That is, while emotions could cause us to reason poorly, they had little or no positive impact on reasoning.  Apparently, Plato was the first to come up with those ideas — ideas which went on to become commonplace assumptions of Western thought.  And Roddenberry, etc seized on those assumptions to create Mr. Spock.

Of course, there are some rather obvious ways in which Plato was right.  Most likely everyone has had some experience with their emotions overwhelming their capacity for reason.  Every child is cautioned not to act in anger or other strong emotional state, least they do something irrational.  And many of us — perhaps even most of us — know that we tend to be more gullible when listening to someone present their views with a great deal of passion than when listening to someone present their views coldly.  “I don’t think Snerkleson is quite right in his views, but he’s so passionate about them that he must honestly see some merit to them.  Maybe there’s at least some truth to what he says about dog turds replacing petroleum as the fuel of the future.”  There are clearly ways emotions can interfere with thought, as Plato knew.

As it happens, though, the notion that emotions only have a negative impact on thought is not borne out by the evidence.

In the early 1990s, a man — who has come to be known as “Elliot” — was referred to Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, by his doctors.  Elliot had applied for disability assistance despite the fact that, “[f]or all the world to see, Elliot was an intelligent, skilled, and able-bodied man who ought to come to this senses and return to work”.  His doctors wanted Damasio to find out if Elliot had a “real disease”.

Damasio found that Elliot tested well when given an IQ test and other measures of intelligence.  His long-term memory, short-term memory, language skills, perception, and handiness with math were unquestionably sound. He was not stupid. He was not ignorant.  Yet, when Damasio started digging into Elliot’s past job performance, he found that Elliot had often behaved as if he was indeed stupid and ignorant.

For instance, Elliot had at least once spent half a day trying to figure out how to categorize his documents.  Should he categorize them by size, date, subject, or some other rule?  Elliot couldn’t decide.  Moreover, he had been fired for leaving work incomplete or in need of correction.   And when Damasio studied what had happened to Elliot after his job loss, he found the same pattern of poor decision-making and incompetence.  Elliot had gotten divorced, then entered into a second marriage that quickly ended in another divorce.  He had then made some highly questionable investments that brought about his bankruptcy.  He couldn’t make plans for a few hours in advance, let alone months or years. Unable to live on his own, he was staying with a sibling. His life was in ruin.

When Damasio looked at Elliot’s medical history, he found that the turning point for Elliot had come about when he developed a brain tumor.   Before the tumor, Elliot had been highly successful in his business field.  He was even a role model for the junior executives.  And he had had a strong, thriving marriage.  Although the brain tumor had been successfully removed,  Elliot had suffered damage to some of the frontal lobe tissues of his brain having to do with the processing of emotions.

Damasio began testing Elliot for his emotional responses to things.  In test after test, Elliot showed little or no emotional response to anything.  He was, Damasio concluded, cognitively unaware of his own emotions.  Then Damasio had a revelation.  “I began to think that the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options,” Damasio wrote.

Damasio went on from Elliot to look at other case studies of people who had suffered brain injuries preventing them from being cognitively aware of their emotional states.  He found the same pattern over and over:  When emotions were impaired, so was decision-making.

The findings of Damasio and other scientists have largely revolutionized how scientists view the relationship between emotion and thought.  It now seems that emotions are, among other things, the means by which we sort out information: The relevant from the irrelevant, the high-priority from the low-priority, the valuable from the worthless.

And Mr. Spock?  Well, a real life Mr. Spock might spend hours trying to figure out whether to set his phaser to stun or kill.  Without emotions, decision-making becomes extraordinarily problematic.

18 thoughts on “Could Star Trek’s Mr. Spock Really Exist?

  1. This is speculation on my part, but I wonder whether this is the explanation for why people on the spectrum can have a hard time making quick decisions. This isn’t to say they’re entirely out of touch with their emotions (often quite the contrary), but their rational part tends to be much stronger when it comes to processing information. I wonder if there are any studies on the subject…

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  2. Good post. I was reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind recently and I think he mentioned something similar. I will have to check. If I remember correctly, people who only use reason and not empathy (or other emotions) may be psychopathic.

    He also made another point about the way we reason. We actually don’t reason logically and impartially, but we rationalize, that is, we use our reasoning ability to justify choices we have already made. We are highly motivated reasoners. If I understood him correctly, that sounds like a good thing. We can get to the truth faster that way because the best rationalization would be the true one.

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  3. Ah, now, you need a reasonably (!) serious Trekker on the scene. Vulcan philosophy after Surak was devoted not to the eradication of emotion (nor was the Vulcan race genetically unemotional, quite the reverse), but to a faintly yogic ideal translated as “passion’s-mastery.” Quite likely Spock was trolling his human colleagues in the beginning, but he had an ideal to uphold (and the searching need of a mixed-race individual to prove himself; his bitter division from his father is made clear early in the original series). The feature films make it clear that Spock has an emotional rudder, but refuses to let it sway him from the reasoned decision if there is a conflict.

    Extra-canonical elaborations of Vulcan history describe a culture riddled with conflict after an early catastrophe that turned Vulcan from a sub-tropical, verdant planet into a mostly desert environment with scarce resources, occasioning a culture of war and rivalry that survived into technological times and nearly destroyed the planet. Surak began to promulgate his philosophy in this atmosphere, to a tired people who were worn out with incessant conflict. It finally came to dominate Vulcan civilization, which found channels for the deepest passions in various rituals. (Diane Duane, “Spock’s World,” q.v.; also the Rihannsu [Romulna] novels.) The terminal Trek series “Enterprise” depicts conflicts between groups claiming to represent Surak’s ideas and the rest of Vulcan, reaching into times after First Contact. Incidentally Vulcan culture is matriarchally organized.

    That said, yes, emotion is required for the formation of any serious values. Spock just represents that observation in a different way than was usually see.

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  4. Balance. Mother Nature is really into balance. Just as one can eat too much ice cream for breakfast, one can lean too far toward the emotional or the logical. That said, just like some people can eat all the ice cream they want and never gain a pound (my husband- grr!) while some people (me- alas!) just glance at Ben or Jerry and go up a dress size, everyone seems to have a slightly unique emotional/logical set point. Interesting post, Paul.

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    • It’s a bit complex. Damascio distinguishes between emotions and feelings. Emotions are the physical responses to internal or external stimuli, such as faster heartbeat and faster breathing rate. Feelings are the cognitive interpretations of emotions. I am threatened, experience fear, and feel horror. If I understand Damascio right, Elliot’s problem was that the damage to his brain deprived him of feelings — he was in effect unaware of his emotions.

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  5. Emotions can also be manipulated to aid our own selves, as in the case of Ornish’s experiment. I’m explicitly not stating what his experiment was, so that you’re prompted to ask and I feel glad that I know something that you don’t (which seems rather impossible given the vastness of your knowledge)

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      • Well, there was this person with blocked arteries. Ornish’s experiment involved asking the guy to feel blood flowing through the arteries. That’s it. Just feel as if it is flowing. The guy did that, and the blockage reduced by a significant degree.
        A lot of other experiments have been conducted which involve asking the subjects to feel good, about themselves and the world in general, and this change in perception has been shown to enable increased rates of positive feelings.
        In general, emotions are necessary for survival, and are likely an evolutionary trait. Going by survival of the fittest, it’s understandable why someone depicting fear towards a lion and fleeing would have a better chance of passing on his genetics than someone who appears indifferent to the presence of a lion.

        Singer and Schadner, I think those were the psychologists, conducted experiments proving how emotional responses are physiologically similar. Your heart will beat faster whether it’s fear you experience or joy. The intensity, of course, will determine the level of physiological changes, but the changes themselves will be similar.

        BTW Paul, I’m very hurt that you did not acknowledge my award :_(

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  6. You might be interested in Leonard’s books
    “I am Spock” and “I am not Spock”.

    He created an internal Spock, in a sense.

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  7. WE all know the brain is a very complex organ and most research on it has been done only in the last 50 years or so. Current theories about it might be the best we’ve ever had but are likely to have flaws so use with caution.

    Regarding the experiments: You state in the post they mostly involve brain damage of some kind. How brain damage can be limited to only affecting certain functions while not others seems suspicious reasoning to me – The brain is not made of separate parts but is interconnected throughout.

    Do we know yet (or merely surmise) why each emotion became a part of our brain’s function or what each one’s real purpose(s) is/are?

    As for the Question: Could he exist (in human form i’m presuming?) My answer would be yes, particularly with Sledpres’s additional info. The real question for us is would we be better or worse selves if we were more like Spock? Would our society be better or worse if more of us were more like Spock?

    Personally, i believe if we all had greater awareness of, and control over, our emotions we’d all be better human beings.

    love.

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