2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the original release of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi magnum opus, Dune. The novel is well known for its detailed account of the political and social structure of a society many thousands of years in the future.
Herbert’s novel centers on the coming-of-age of the young Paul Atreides, the son of the Duke Leto Atreides. As the story begins, the family is in the process of being uprooted from their home planet Caladan, so that Leto can take over his new position as governor of the barren desert planet Arrakis. The Atreides must adapt to the hostile environment of the new planet while also dealing with attacks by their rival house, the Harkonnens.
Given this scenario, it’s no wonder that the novel also contains so many valuable lessons about the power of thought and psychological discipline. Paul’s mother, Jessica, is a Bene Gesserit – a member of an ancient school that teaches its female students how to harness their own minds, producing extraordinarily powerful mental abilities. Paul receives this training as well because of his mother’s hope that he may turn out to be the Kwizats Haderach, a legendarily powerful male Bene Gesserit.
While some of Jessica and Paul’s mental abilities are pure science fiction, many of the principles at play draw from real psychological research. So what exactly can Dune teach us about the power of our thoughts?
1) Fear is the Mind Killer
One of the most famous quotes from the novel comes from Paul “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” The quote appears in the novel when Paul is undergoing a test by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen, a Bene Gesserit test in which the duke’s son must place his hand in a box that will cause him pain, under duress of being killed if he does not.
The quotation is an ancient litany in the dune universe, repeated by the Bene Gesserit and possibly other associations who trained their minds to put up with great duress. According to the litany, by allowing fear to enter our minds, we cloud our judgement, preventing ourselves from making decisions and taking actions that could solve the problem. Paul is able to push back his fear of the test and go through with it, coming out unharmed and proving himself in the eyes of the Reverend Mother.
Later in the novel, after the family lands on Arrakis, Paul must use this training again, to combat a deadly weapon that has been planted in his bedroom. Had Paul let his fear overtake him in this scenario, he likely would have panicked and been killed. It was his calmness and ability to think through solutions that saved Paul’s life.
2) Adaptability is Key
Shortly after the Atreides family lands on Arrakis, the Duke contemplates the importance of finding something for his son to love about the desert planet. The Atreides are unlikely to leave the planet within Paul’s lifetime, and the only way for the Duke’s son to flourish and be able to lead his house is to adapt and make the best of the situation.
After spending some time on the planet Paul finds himself enjoying the quiet landscape. The Duke, before his death, notices that the sunsets and sunrises have a certain beauty to them. These instances in the novel serve to demonstrate how a more generous interpretation of a given situation can help us deal with the situation more constructively.
There is a significant amount of research backing the idea that the way the mind and body reacts to stress can be influenced by prior associations. This can go both ways – on the “good” end of the spectrum we see hyperconsciousness or hyperawareness (“enlightenment,” a new awareness of one’s own surroundings) to unconsciousness on the low end (that is, shutting down, willful ignorance, death or catatonia.)
When he and Jessica are taken captive and the Duke killed, Paul could have simply shut down and given up – but in part because of his training and in part because of his ability to see the good in a situation, he responds by discovering the true extent of his mental abilities and coming into his true role as the Kwizats Haderach, Herbert’s version of the “chosen one” – a supremely powerful male Bene Gesserit.
3) Training by Association
In order to be able to form positive associations and take control of his mental state, Paul had plenty of prior training. Luckily, the idea of mentally preparing yourself for any stressful situation is hardly science fiction.
IN 1949, Donald Hebb theorized that memories are stored by repeat association – when brain cells frequently fire together, they start to do so naturally, causing association – if one was trained to associate stressful situations with enhanced calmness and concentration (as Paul and the Bene Gesserits are) he will almost certainly find himself calm and at the ready when a real stressful situation does arise.
Indeed, one need never have been placed in actual danger in order to learn to react to it accordingly. Hebb’s pioneering research also proved that thought alone is enough to strengthen the connections between brain cells – frequent, significant association usually proves true even when the situation becomes real.
As the child of a Bene Gesserit, Paul underwent mental training all through his childhood that taught him exactly how he should react under duress. Knowing that the Duke’s son would have to travel to the hostile Arrakis, his mother and her fellow Bene Gesserits were certain to give him appropriate training – thus giving Paul the tools to combat the environment and the Harkonnens.
Don’t we all wish we had some Bene Gesserit training to deal with life’s tribulations!
4) Learning to Differentiate Logic from Instinct
A large tenet of the Bene Gesserit training is giving students the ability to override their natural instincts with logical thoughts to work their way through a situation. Within the novel, a number of different schools including the Bene Gesserits produce mentats, or people who are able to think quickly and logically enough to replace computer AI, which has been outlawed. The basis of a mentat’s power is his or her ability to separate personal emotion and instinct from any event or piece of information, leaving only the facts and rational decision-making.
Being able to set aside your emotions can certainly reduce the impact of a stressful situation. This goes hand in hand with overcoming fear, which is an emotional and instinctual reaction in many circumstances. Where fear clouds our judgement, being able to see past it can give us abilities to surpass even our own expectations.
5) Stress is the True Test
Under situations of extreme stress, the mind tends to revert to habits – actions and thought patterns that we are so used to performing that they’ve become second nature. Habit memory (the type of memory that’s used when performing a task you’re already skilled at) takes over in situations of stress, whereas declarative memory (the type of memory that’s activated when you’re in the process of memorizing knowledge or learning a new skill) takes a backseat.
A small amount of stress can actually have a positive effect on your performance at skilled tasks. Manageable stress levels provide a motivating factor. Different people have different thresholds for the amount of stress they can handle, not to mention different stress triggers. It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much stress is too much.
One thing is for certain – extreme or chronic stress is detrimental to a person’s performance at new tasks. If you’re just learning to drive, for example, the moderate stress of a testing environment might give you the extra motivation you need to excel at the task. If you’re an inexperienced driver trying to get away from, say, a marauding sandworm, you might be better off on foot as the panic would severely impair your driving abilities.
When Paul and his mother are captured by their enemies, the extreme stress causes Paul to revert to ingrained habits. Luckily for him, the habits he’s been taught are of mental discipline that allows him to see his situation clearly enough to plan an escape.
Dune teaches us that the true key to overcoming any trial is to be confident in your ability to overcome it. Being able to think rationally and to set aside fear and strong emotional responses in favour of a calm and calculating outlook can serve us well in almost any situation – fictional or otherwise.