Growing up Trekkie – How Star Trek Made Me Fall in Love with Psychology

I have a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and spend most of my days working in a hospital treating anxiety and depression. As a child, I never thought I’d be in this position. Back then, I spent most of my time riding bikes and playing video games. While other kids dreamed about who they would become when they grew up, I was content just thinking about the next great Nintendo game. My dad feared I might not graduate high school, let alone college. I was okay with that.

March 13, 1988: That’s me on the left playing Atari with my brother.

All of that changed when my brother took me to see Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

I was only eight years old at the time and knew nothing about Star Trek. While the movie’s social commentary on the end of the Cold War was way over my head (I was much more fascinated by the exploding spaceships), something about this universe spoke to me. While Han Solo and Luke Skywalker were cool, I couldn’t see myself living in their scary universe. But I wanted to be friends with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and believed it just might be possible for me to serve on the U.S.S. Enterprise.

January 27, 2004: Sharing my story with the director of Star Trek VI, Nicholas Meyer.

A few days later, my brother and I were channel surfing when we came across an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I remember him saying, “You really liked that Star Trek movie, maybe you should check out this show.” I was a little confused at first – I had no idea there was a Star Trek television show (nor did I realize there were 5 other movies and an original television series). The Next Generation immediately consumed me. I raced home every day from school to watch reruns of the series and anxiously awaited new episodes.

This experience changed my life in a seismic way. Star Trek taught me that by using science, technology, and exploration we could push the human race forward. As I grew up, Star Trek challenged my world views. Episodes such as “Tapestry”“The Inner Light”“Darmok”“The Outcast”, and “The First Duty” forced me to reconsider my beliefs on life and death as well as right and wrong.

The core Star Trek value of inclusion (“infinite diversity in infinite combinations”) became the foundation of my own philosophy.

​September 25, 2010: Thanking Patrick Stewart, Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard, for inspiring me to love science.

I didn’t know how, but I wanted to pursue similar goals (science and exploration) in my life. Yet, in high school few subjects appealed to me. I enjoyed my science courses, but I didn’t feel like biology, chemistry, or physics “spoke” to me like Star Trek did. Eventually, I enrolled in college as an undeclared major. While I told friends and family that I was considering pre-law and pre-med, inside I was lost.

I avoided choosing my first semester freshmen courses as long as possible. It reached a point where most classes were closed. When I did enroll, only introductory psychology was available as an elective. I knew nothing of the subject and enrolled more by default than by interest.

The first lecture by Professor Goesling hit me just as hard as the explosion of Praxis in Star Trek VI.

Psychology spoke to me in much the same way as Star Trek did. The integration of hard scientific research and introspection, two elements of all great Star Trek stories, were the foundation of psychology.

I saw psychology as a field that could finally answer questions proposed by Star Trek – how do we define life, what makes a person good versus evil, and how can we better humanity? The science of psychology (behaviorism, cognitive science, and neuroscience) had empirical methods for analyzing these questions and a rich literature of experimental answers. Once again, I geeked out and devoured the field by devoting the next decade of my life to earning my bachelors, masters, and doctorate in psychology.

As the internet celebrated the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation and wrote about its legacy and the impact it has had on so many lives, I felt compelled to share my story and start my blog, Brain Knows Better.

It is my hope that I can help inspire the next generation of science fiction geeks to love the brain and behavioral sciences.

October 22, 2012: This model of the U.S.S. Enterprise, hanging in my hospital office, reminds me of the human potential to change and grow.

Ali Mattu received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. he was born and raised in Silicon Valley and studied psychology at UCLA. Ali is currently a post-doctoral fellow in clinical psychology at the NYU Langone Medical Center Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry/Child Study Center. Outside of psychology, he is an active photographer. Whenever possible, Ali consumes science fiction.

This post originally appeared on Ali’s blog Brain Knows Better.

4 Comments on “Growing up Trekkie – How Star Trek Made Me Fall in Love with Psychology”

  1. Great piece! I grew up with Star Trek. One thing I took away from it over the years that while technology can take you pretty far it has it’s limits. How many times did Scotty ever say something like, “Captain, I’m givin’ ‘er all she’s got now. Any more and those dilithium crystals’ll blow for sure.” 🙂 Thanks for sharing this with us.

    • Ali says:

      Thanks, Doug. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I completely agree with you – even in the 24th century, technology can only take you so far.

  2. Deb says:

    I am working with a group of Aspbergers folks who love Star Trek. I would love to teach social skills employing this (goal=work). Any ideas?

    • Very interesting idea, Deb! I’ve used social effectiveness therapy to teach social skills to a non-ASD spectrum population. I think you could use examples from all the series which highlight specific social skills in social effectiveness therapy (or other social skills interventions). Episodes involving Spock, Data, Odo, and the Doctor could also highlight some of the principals you are trying to teach.