Spock and the Myth of “Emotion Versus Logic”

Look, I’m just saying that Spock was wrong.

Not about everything, of course. But about his developmental crux, the war going on betwixt his delightfully pointed ears. People love to talk about Spock’s struggle to reconcile the two natures within him—the rational, staid pragmatism of Vulcan and the wild, untempered emotionality of Earth. The half-vulcan half-human spends his entire life trying to accommodate these halves, and seems to wind up somewhere in the middle. He takes what’s best from both of his ancestral cultures and knits them together beautifully, evolving into a mature and centered being.

Except that’s not what happened at all.

Here’s the problem: Binary thinking permeates our culture. People tout the differences between men and women (Mars and Venus!), divide fictional characters into “heroes” and “villains”, insist that cats and dogs are complete opposites despite their many similarities. One of our favorite binaries is how we think of our own brains—namely that humans tend to believe that “rationality” and “emotion” are two opposing states that vie for dominance within us all. No one represents this dichotomy better than Star Trek’s Mr. Spock because that’s precisely what he was designed for.

Fiction (especially genre fiction) adores this premise, the concept of someone at war with their rational and emotional selves. Sometimes it is the result of survivalist extremism, or isolation from others, or perhaps it’s because they’re an android. “The Spock” is a type unto itself, a set of traits and beliefs that can be observed in countless fictional characters, from Temperance “Bones” Brennan to Sherlock Holmes to Dana Scully to Rupert Giles to Olivia Pope. Characters like these have a clear and pressing need: To view any and all situations with “dispassionate logic” and remove emotion from rational thought. These characters often consider any display or outburst of feeling to be tedious, silly, or directly antithetical to their raison d’être. The constant interference of feelings—whether internal or coming at them from other meddlesome, irrational people—is their struggle. Wouldn’t it be so peaceful to be rid of it, so they could practice their stone cold pursuit of facts in peace?

The reason this trope pops up so often should be obvious enough: Humans, as a rule, have a lot of feelings and don’t know what to do with them. Examining this issue via a character who takes that problem to an extreme conclusion is (dare I say) fascinating because we’re all busy trying to corral our own emotional responses into more manageable baskets on a daily basis. It’s such a common theme that we’ve developed a range of vernacular to discuss it, whether we go off about superego and id, Jekyll and Hyde, or the ever-present “lizard brain”, which is meant to be some primordial vestige of our caveman ancestry that pushes us toward our animal instincts. You can take quizzes online that ask if you are “emotional or logical?” and read any number of articles advising you on when it’s appropriate to make decisions with your heart rather than your head. Clearly this problem is on our minds, as a species.

Spock, Star Trek Discovery, season 2

Screenshot: CBS

And so we have Spock, who has spent over half a century on screens and between pages, helping us make sense of it all. Raised to be entirely rational, told that the Vulcan way was superior, Spock spends a large portion of his life trapped between two modes of thought, two selves, two ways of living his life. As the character’s originator, Leonard Nimoy believed that despite his part-alien heritage, Spock’s struggle was inherently a human one, saying once in an interview, “Before we become logical, thinking people, we are irrational, childish, impetuous, inclined to be angry and get into fights, and so forth. Why do adults get into less fights than children do? Because they’ve gone to the logical side, they’ve become more thought-oriented than emotion-oriented, more left brain than right brain.” Nimoy believed in the concept of right-brained and left-brained thinking, the idea that one side of the brain is more inclined to science and rationality, and the other is more creative, artistic, and emotional. With that idea comes the insistence that people are naturally inclined to use one hemisphere of the brain more often than the other, i.e. that some are more inherently logical and some are more creative. This is another mode of organization with a multitude of online tests, advice, and suggestions on how to “strengthen” whichever side of your brain that you use less.

There’s just one teensy weensy little problem—these ideas about how the human mind functions are basically bullshit.

In fact, they are such bullshit that modern psychology has had to devote a considerable amount of time to debunking these myths. While the left and right sides of the brain do function differently, they are not organizing every human brain into a logical half and an emotional half. Taking a cue from Psychology Today in an article by Joe Frohlich, we find, “the two hemispheres are different, yet brain imaging technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) suggest that, on average, we use both sides of our brain equally. We are all ‘brain-ambidextrous.’” The obsession with left or right-brained-ness started with studies in the 1950s involving patients who had the nerves connecting the hemispheres of their brains severed to treat epilepsy. This allowed scientists to study what actions and processes correlated to different sides of the brain, but it never meant that people were irrevocably aligned with one half of their mind or the other.

It’s hard for people to let go of the idea of baser instincts and emotional hemispheres because, as Ben Thomas says in his article “Revenge of the Lizard Brain” in Scientific American, “it’d be comforting, in a way, if we could pin those conflicts on little lizard brains—just name those ancient demons and drive ‘em out, like we did in simpler times.” We don’t want to let go of these things because it makes our own psychological makeup seem simpler—easier to parse out, therefore easier to fight back against or hack for the better. We want to believe that we have a lizard brain, but also a human one, which makes higher thinking possible. And it’s true that not all of our instincts are helpful—no one likes getting the anxiety sweats before a job interview, or being irrationally afraid of spiders—but that doesn’t mean that we are better served by separating our emotional selves from our logical selves, or that attempting to do so is possible or even useful.

In fact, the truth happens to be the opposite. If you take a look at the work of psychologists Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman (these are the two responsible for helping out Pixar in their construction of the human mind in Inside Out), their research has led them to an entirely different conclusion on how emotion and rationality intersect:

Emotions organize—rather than disrupt—rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations.

But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.

Our emotions are deeply relevant to our ability to make rational decisions. They are not divided up as processes, but carefully intertwined with one another. Feelings are part and parcel of our ability to pursue logical thought in the first place, and without them, we are refusing to give context to our problems and respond effectively. So Spock’s inner turmoil would seem to be based on a fallacy—emotion versus logic is not where this party’s at. It is the point of integration that we should be focusing on, how we cultivate our emotions to better suss out rational solutions to any number of problems.

But the strange thing is, while Star Trek may have couched this internal conflict incorrectly by positioning emotion and logic as polar opposites in some kind of ongoing psychological duel, it seems to have always known the truth deep down. Because if you follow Spock’s development—over several television shows, films, and multiple realities—we don’t see a character who spends his life battling his human heritage in order to assert Vulcan pragmatism. Instead, we see a person whose entire life is oriented around developing the emotional intelligence that his stoic Vulcan upbringing denied him, and how he manages to find peace and balance in that process over the course of his life. Spock’s story is one devoted to seeking out the places where emotion intersects with logic, and learning to trust in those feelings all the way to self-enlightenment.

Take the Original Series episode “The Galileo Seven,” for example, an midway offering in Star Trek’s first season. Spock’s command of an away mission goes horribly awry: He has to make an emergency landing on an unknown planet, fails to take the emotional response of an alien species into account while trying to prevent an attack, and loses two crew members on his watch. While he and the remaining crew manage to repair their shuttlecraft, there’s no guarantee that the Enterprise will be able to find them amid electrical interference in space. When it seems as though they’ve run out of time, Spock makes a gamble, dumping their fuel and igniting it in the hopes that they’ll be easier to spot. His ploy works, and when their group is rescued, Captain Kirk tries to get Spock to admit that the fuel jettison was a decision made out of emotion, which Spock plainly refuses to do. But while Kirk is wrong to insist that acting out emotion is an inherently “human” choice, he is making an important point to Spock—a choice couched in emotion is what saved him and his landing party.

Star Trek Original Series, Spock and Kirk, The Galileo Seven

Screenshot: CBS

The bond between Trek’s core trio of Spock, James T. Kirk, and Leonard McCoy is founded around this very concept; both Jim and Bones spend much of their time tempting Spock to engage with his emotions and admit to them. Because an excess of emotion is cited as dangerous to Vulcan physiology, Spock’s friends tend to pose these lessons as teasing rather than some serious form of education, but the execution is effective as methods go. The longer Spock spends among the Enterprise crew, the more comfortable he seems to become with his emotions. That is, until he leaves Starfleet and tries to purge all of his emotions through the Vulcan discipline of Kolinahr. And then again when he is reborn on the Genesis planet and has to relearn his past piece by piece. And then again when he travels to an alternate reality and discovers a younger and rawer version of himself who loses his home and his mother very early in life.

No matter how this story unfolds, the message is still the same. When Spock refuses to engage his emotions, the result is disastrous, and it isn’t because he’s “denying” his human half—it’s because he is refusing to arm himself with better tools for the exact type of problem-solving and meticulous thinking that he thrives on. Star Trek Discovery has made this issue even more evident with the show’s treatment of Spock’s childhood, giving the audience a clearer understanding of how he came to separate emotion and logic so severely in his youth, and how he begins to break down those barriers while serving under Captain Pike on the Enterprise.

In season two of Discovery, Spock has escaped a Starfleet psychiatric ward and been framed for murder following his reconnection with a figure known as “the red angel.” The crew of the Discovery are determined to find him, given their certainty of his innocence and distrust of Starfleet’s intelligence wing, Section 31. But once Spock’s sister Michael Burnham catches up to him, the situation reveals itself to be far more complex, dating back to his childhood on Vulcan. Michael learns from Spock’s mother Amanda that Spock has a learning disability, one that the Vulcans blamed on his human heritage. When Amanda and Spock’s father Sarek took Michael into their home upon the death of her own parents, Amanda hoped that Michael would be of better aid to Spock than the Vulcans, that she would teach him how to engage with his emotions and help him learn. Unfortunately, out of fear that being too close to Spock would make him a target of Vulcan’s logic extremists (who almost kill Michael in an attack on the Vulcan Learning Center), she tried to run away and hurt Spock in the process, deliberately breaking their relationship by insisting that he couldn’t love and calling him a “half-breed”.

Michael and Spock, Star Trek Discovery, season 2

Screenshot: CBS

“Your words showed me how… damaging my humanity could be,” Spock tells Michael on Talos IV, after they both dive into her memory of leaving that night at the behest of the Talosians. Spurned by his sister, who he believed would teach him how to express himself and eventually show him what life was like on Earth, Spock chose to immerse himself completely in logic, shunning the aspects of himself that he found too “human”. Michael felt extreme guilt over that parting for decades, but Spock counts it as the point where he became a better Vulcan. “It was foolish to idolize you,” he tells her, when she suggests that their relationship might be more important to him than he’s willing to admit. “And I regret it deeply.”

It is important to unpack Michael and Spock’s relationship, because it shines a light on one of the greatest gaping holes of Spock’s development: A lack of support and guidance from his parents. Sarek has always been a terrible dad, no matter his excuses, but Discovery also points out the places where Amanda Grayson shares that burden. Essentially, Sarek and Amanda adopted Michael and brought her into their home for their own purposes; for Sarek, she was another experiment in introducing more emotion into Vulcan culture; for Amanda, she was a handy way of helping Spock connect to his “human side”, something that Amanda felt she was unable to do herself in order to present a consistent and unified front with Sarek as parents. They used a little girl, grieving the loss of her own family, to further their goals for Vulcan and their son—and in the process, they hurt both children so badly that it took years of painful searching to undo that damage.

When Spock and Michael are finally reunited, Spock insists that he is not interested in reconciliation and tries to keep his sister at arm’s length. But even while behaving callously toward her, he still has enough emotional awareness to point out a place where Michael needs to adjust for her own health: he notes that she always makes everything her responsibility and blames herself for matters completely beyond her control, like the death of her parents. Through the course of their conversations he admits to his own anger and is forced to work through it, he is forthright in his disappointment with their father, and he openly recognizes that Michael cannot be held responsible for hurting him when she was only a child herself. Moreover, Spock makes amends with Michael once she acts out against the man who is truly responsible for the death of her parents, telling her, “You have experienced a series of events in which emotion and logic have failed you. In my experience of these events it is… uncomfortable.”

In this moment, Spock shows himself to be far more emotionally intelligent than the Original Series often gave him credit for. He is fully aware of the fact that both logic and feeling are needed in sound judgement, but he also knows there are moments when applying them may still yield no answers. This is a common conundrum, neither human nor Vulcan by nature—it it simply what we all must contend with as self-aware beings. Later on in Discovery’s second season, as the artificial intelligence called Control gains more power, Spock asks Michael for a rematch on their game of chess that he abruptly aborted, assuring her that with “instinct and logic together” they will be able to stop the threat Control poses to galactic sentient life. It is perhaps telling that he replaces emotion with instinct in this case, as Spock’s respect for instinct and intuition is part of what makes him such an excellent partner to James T. Kirk in the years that follow. He may choose to categorize and label emotions differently than a human would, but it is clear that he understands them far better than his parents could have ever hoped.

Michael and Spock, Star Trek Discovery, season 2

Screenshot: CBS

There is no Emotion Vs Logic match, no either-or to be hand in this argument. All well-rendered stories, whether they realize it or not, are asking the same questions—how do I integrate feelings into my rational thoughts with purpose and intention? How can I use emotion to enhance problem-solving abilities? How do both logic and emotion inform my ability to live ethically, kindly, and with compassion? These aspects of our psyches are not fighting a battle for supremacy within us. They’re roommates, cohabitating the same space, working together to keep the same brain apartment clean and easy to live in.

Spock is still the poster child for this quandary, not because he is representing the strengths (or weaknesses) of two species, but because his personal narrative—his entire life—is arranged around these questions. By examining him and other characters like him, we’re really just trying to figure out how to manage and translate our own emotions more effectively. Star Trek can offer us many thoughts on the uses of logic, many handy quotes to break out when we’re feeling lost. But, in all of Trek’s fifty-year history, the actions borne of emotion are the ones that always stick with us. Friends learning from one another, working together, depending upon each other—those are the moments we prize.

And deep down, we know exactly why.

Originally published in April 2019.

Emily Asher-Perrin will always love Spock for helping them figure out how to translate emotions more effectively. You can bug him on Twitter, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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