Emotions in mind

Professor Keith Oatley considers the psychological input to the new Disney Pixar film Inside Out.

06 July 2015

Inside Out.
Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen (Directors)

Spoiler alert: contains plot detail!

Inside Out is an animated movie, made by Pixar and Disney, that takes us into the mind of an appealing eleven-year year old girl, Riley. The mind, it turns out, is a complex place. In its Headquarters there’s a console that looks like something one might find in a television studio. At the console sits a row of inner characters: the emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, who push the buttons and pull the levers.

These characters have become familiar to psychologists as basic emotions, the facial expressions of which were reported by Paul Ekman and colleagues to be recognizable in widely different cultures. (Surprise was apparently omitted because the director felt the ‘Fear’ character could display that too). Dacher Keltner went to work with Ekman as a post-doc, and became an authority on how specific emotions direct social interactions. At the end of the film’s credits, thanks are given to Ekman and Keltner for guiding the film-makers on what they call ‘this emotional journey’. (Disclosure: I am a co-author with Keltner of the textbook Understanding Emotions.)

Keltner is a professor at Berkeley and, in the online magazine he started there, called Greater Good, he writes that some years ago, when their daughters were in their pre-teen years, the travails of parenting bonded him with Pete Docter, who later became one of the writers and directors of Inside Out. ‘When [children] get to their preteens and early teens,’ writes Keltner, ‘it’s like the world crashes down on them.’ This crash involves a large drop in happiness. In this film, the drop begins when Riley’s mother and father, and of course Riley herself, move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley loses the ice-hockey team in which she used to enjoy playing, she loses friends, she loses confidence, and perhaps worst of all she loses childhood.

Memories, which include autobiographical events such as scoring one’s first goal in ice hockey, are contained, it turns out, in balls about the size of grapefruit. Each ball has a colour (green for joy, red for anger, blue for sadness). They are stored in huge twenty-foot-tall racks arrayed in vast halls. The racks are visited by workers with a large vacuum machine that sucks up and disposes of memories that won’t be used again, early piano lessons, names of people from history classes, and so on. There’s also the question of which memories become Core Memories: happy, or sad, or angry, or fearful, or rejecting. And, as research has shown, Core Memories based on each emotion are more likely to return to consciousness during periods when that emotion becomes predominant.

With the losses that the move to San Francisco have caused, some Core Memories that used to be joyful become sad. Joy becomes no longer the principal controller of Riley’s console. The previously equable Riley has a row with her parents, and is sent to her room. Anger, Fear, and Disgust have taken charge. Not long afterwards, Joy and Sadness are sucked out of Headquarters altogether.

Dragging Sadness along with her, Joy wanders among the racks of stored memories. Although Sadness seems a miserable kind of being, it’s she who will be the heroine of this film. The story is a moving one; we become strongly engaged when Joy and Sadness, leave the halls of memory and topple out of the mind altogether. How can they get back? By now, at Headquarters, Anger is driving Riley to run away from home. Still in exile, can Joy and Sadness get back to Headquarters by catching the rickety-looking Train of Thought? Or might an imaginary friend of early childhood, who also wanders in the lost regions of forgetfulness, be of any help?

There has been a tradition in the West of personifying the emotions which, until two hundred years ago, were called passions. Plato had the soul represented as a charioteer driving two horses, one that represented the noble passions and one that represented the unruly passions of appetite. In medieval times Guillaume de Lorris wrote the first part of Le Roman de la Rose, in which a courtier enters a garden and meets an aristocratic young woman whom he starts to woo. His consciousness is represented by Hope, Sweet Thought, Reason, and so on. She too is a cast of characters: Welcome, Status, Danger, Fear, and Shame. In the 17th century, Jean-François’s Senault’s The Use of Passions showsReason, advised by Divine Grace, holding in chains the passions: Feare, Despaire, Choler, Hope, and so on. In Inside Out, there’s no equivalent of Reason. It’s the emotions who work the console at Headquarters. They all seem loyal to Riley, but they vie with each other for domination.

The tradition of personifying human emotions has been a productive one. It enables us to stand a bit outside ourselves, and at the same time to look within ourselves. Inside Out is a good example of this tradition and being very 21st century it uses the latest technology of computer-animation and 3D movie-making. It’s a thoughtful film to which psychologists can take their pre-teen and teenage children, and be ready to discuss what – for goodness sake – might be going on in that mysterious and fascinating place, the mind.

 - Reviewed by Keith Oatley, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, University of Toronto. You can read more online about the psychology of Inside Out and what Keltner thinks of the end result.