Movies

Linking Galaxies Chapter 16, Lightsaber Duel Psychology Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from Linking Galaxies: Examining the Depths of Star Wars by Christian Corah and William Custer. The Kindle version of the book is currently available for preorder and will be released, along with the physical copy, on December 15th. Enjoy!

One of the most intricate, beautiful, and iconic performances in Star Wars are the lightsaber duels. The quality of lightsaber duels can often make or break a movie. It is what makes The Phantom Menace1 so appealing to me since the duel between Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Darth Maul is one of the best on screen moments in Star Wars. The duels combine the power of one’s knowledge and connection to the Force with their skills handling the laser sword. It’s a complex combination of both mental and physical skills. The winner is often clear since they are the ones who get to walk away from the fight. These duels also usually have major military implications that help to decide galactic wars (if Vader would have beaten Luke, the Empire would have won).

Since the stakes are so high individually and holistically, it’s pretty obvious that Force users will do everything in their power to win. Through this chapter, different duels from the Star Wars universe will be analyzed and there will be key takeaways for why each Force user won or lost and how that behavior can be repeated or avoided. This is so we can learn more about what it takes to win or lose a competition. The focus will not be on what they did physically to win, but instead it will be on their mindset and why it was superior (or inferior if they lost). This is because at high levels of competition, physical talents can be fairly equal and it can be up to one’s mindset that brings them from defeat to victory. 

Before the first duel is introduced, it is important to note that not all duels are won or lost due to a mindset. Sometimes the fight is simply not balanced and the better fighter wins. No matter how superior my mental mindset is, I am going to be SLAUGHTERED trying to fight Kylo Ren or a talented mixed martial artist. A good Star Wars example of this is when Anakin fights Count Dooku in Revenge of the Sith.2 Anakin tells Dooku that his own powers have doubled since they had last met. It’s popular to joke that “two times zero is still zero” (inferring that Anakin had zero powers before), but Anakin has seen a lot of growth since the last time they fought. Anakin is both stronger in the Force and in his lightsaber skills. So when Anakin defeats Dooku, it is not because Anakin has a superior mindset, it is because Anakin is the superior Force and lightsaber user. By going back and watching the fight it is rather obvious that the more talented fighter wins (Kylo Ren defeating Finn in The Force Awakens3 is another good example).

This is why the examples used in this chapter will not focus on a situation where the stronger Force user or dueler wins.4 It will either be a situation where the underdog wins or when the fight is balanced and one of the fighters finds a competitive mental edge. At elite levels of competition, athletes are often physically evenly matched. It can be their mental game that decides the victor and it is the focus of this chapter to apply concepts of psychology to the duels to gain more understanding of the mental games and breifly how to apply it in the real world.

Metacognition and Working Memory

As I mentioned previously, one of the most redeemable scenes in The Phantom Menace is the duel between Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Darth Maul. The scene never ceases to excite me. However, the ending always leaves a sour taste in my mouth. After Maul kills Qui-Gon, it seems pretty hopeless for Obi-Wan. As Qui-Gon’s Padawan, it’s clear that, at this time, Obi-Wan is his inferior in most ways. Maul’s confidence is also through the roof at this point. He just slayed a Jedi Master and now has a chance to slay his Padawan as well. 

Although things do not look good for Obi-Wan, we all know how this fight ends and honestly it has bothered me for some time. Obi-Wan, when stuck hanging in a bottomless pit with no weapon, just jumps up, grabs Qui-Gon’s lightsaber, and strikes down Maul without Maul doing a thing to defend himself. Overall, this duel is honestly one of the most aesthetically pleasing scenes in Star Wars. The acrobatics, two talented Jedi, scary looking Sith, and unique double sided lightsaber all combine for a great scene, but how could an accomplished Sith Lord be unable to react to this finishing move from Obi-Wan? It is not like Obi-Wan moves with blazing speed or deception. Maul was able to handle two Jedi with great success, so how could this one move defeat him? Especially since Maul is aided by the Force, he should have certainly made a move other than just turning to face Obi-Wan. This only gives Obi-Wan an easier chance to strike down the defenseless Maul.

This section will give an explanation as to why Maul is unable to make any defensive move and to hopefully redeem the one negative component of the scene. First, a concept that is important to understand is working memory. This term is used to describe the functional part of short-term memory, which has a duration of fifteen to thirty seconds. It’s key to note that this working memory is rather limited. Whether it’s through sensory integration or one’s thoughts, working memory is not capable of doing too much work at once.5 This is when we get overstimulated. 

The capacity is typically described as being five to nine items. So one can typically remember a phone number rather easily (because, minus the area code, phone numbers are 7 numbers long), but with additional numbers some may be forgotten.6 This explanation works well for finite items (like the numbers), but it gets more tricky when considering complex conceptual thoughts. The point is that one can only think about so much at a certain time. The limit can vary from person to person depending on their cognitive resources (elements that allow the brain to work).

For example, imagine you are driving and listening to music at the same time. If you are familiar with the music, you are probably capable of singing along to the music while driving safely at the same time (if not, you should probably turn the music off). This is because singing and driving have been drilled into our minds becoming automatic behaviors. In other words, they do not require many cognitive resources to perform. Now, if you were trying to calculate long division in your head while driving, the results would definitely not be the same. I am not suggesting that you attempt this, but you could probably imagine how it would turn out. Even though your eyes may remain on the road, your brain will be unable to process the information effectively since your cognitive resources are being used solely on the long division. So even if a child runs out into the street and your eyes are on the road, you may not stop in time, or even at all, since your brain is focused on something else.

Those with selective hearing often experience this. I would experience this a lot growing up. I would be so engrossed into the book I was reading that I wouldn’t even be able to hear my mom saying my name trying to get my attention right behind my chair. Even though nothing loud is going on around me, my brain pays no attention to the auditory input. All cognitive resources are engrossed into the exciting novel. So even though there is always something to see, hear, smell, or feel, we are hardly ever aware of all of these senses.

Something very similar happens to Maul during the final move of Obi-Wan. After throwing Obi-Wan into the duct, Maul begins to gloat over both of his victories. Understandably so, Maul is experiencing a rather intense high at the moment. He had just defeated a Jedi Master and his young and upcoming Padawan, so adrenaline is pumping from the fight and reward neurotransmitters are rushing into his brain because of the victories. 

It is difficult to say exactly where Maul’s mind is at since he is so expressionless, but I can make an educated guess. Perhaps it is replaying his finishing move on Qui-Gon, rehearsing how he will finish Obi-Wan, or thinking of what it will be like when Palpatine hears of his accomplishments. Whatever it is, it is using up many of Maul’s cognitive resources at the time. Because of this, the only movement he can muster is turning towards Obi-Wan as he jumps over him. This turn is more of a reflex than a consciously controlled movement. Turning to face one’s enemy does not require many cognitive resources for a highly trained Sith, so this is all Maul can accomplish with his preoccupied mind. He is not able to snap out of his thoughts quickly enough to do anything else. Even though Obi-Wan is in his visual field, his brain can not process the information adequately, just like the driver doing calculus or when I was engrossed into my book. 

If you are not convinced of this yet, there is another example in Star Wars that is eerily similar. It is another scene that originally left me scratching my head and contemplating the logic of the movie. The scene takes place during The Last Jedi7 inside of Snoke’s throne room. Kylo Ren is supposed to be executing Rey while Snoke closes his eyes and enters inside of Kylo’s mind. 

This scene is pretty interesting since we can hear what is going on inside of Snoke’s mind as he thinks out loud. The grimaces on Snoke’s face tell us how caught up in his own thoughts he is. While doing so, Kylo slowly uses the Force to turn Rey’s lightsaber, which is next to Snoke, towards him. Even without Force abilities, Snoke should be able to hear the lightsaber turning since it is right next to him. However, Snoke is too caught up in his own thoughts to process the information and it leads to his death. 

Both Maul and Snoke would not have been sliced in half if they had been more aware of and directed their thoughts towards what was happening physically in the present. It has been mentioned multiple times in Star Wars that beings can be “blinded by their arrogance.” Palpatine says this to Yoda when they met in The Revenge of the Sith. While its intention deals with one’s thoughts, in the case of both Snoke and Maul, their arrogance literally, physically blinds them to their surroundings.

It comes down to knowing when to be mindful and when to let your mind wander. The term metacognition refers to thinking about thinking.8 Practicing metacognition and awareness allows one’s unconscious thoughts to become more noticeable.9 There certainly are times and places to think of the past, future, and abstract ideas, but in these instances these thoughts lead to their downfall. It is because the mind should be directed on what is happening presently, not on the past (replaying killing Qui-Gon) or the future (how he would kill Obi-Wan). While this is easily applicable to sport, it is also applicable outside of sport. In situations where cognitive resources are needed and valuable, one should not use them up with other thoughts, especially when the thoughts are negative. If one is giving a presentation, being interviewed, or even on a big date, being aware of one’s thoughts makes sure that one does not miss something important. If your mind is wandering and your date says “I love you” for the first time, this might not be something you want to miss.

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