Spoiler Alert : There are some spoilers in here...but just a couple!
I recently saw the new Pixar movie, Inside Out, which explores the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley as she moves across the country with her family — and her emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. As someone that studied neurobiology and psychology in graduate school, I found this movie quite interesting at the adult level! Granted, it’s a kids’ movie, and so it’s simplistic and somewhat inaccurate, but there’s still a neurology lesson in there. First off, in school, we’re taught that there are four basic emotions : sad, glad, mad, and scared. Add in disgust, and you have all of the main characters of this movie!
Inside Out puts Joy in charge of Riley by default, but each person’s natural-born temperament is not necessarily optimistic. When the “control center” — which the film depicts as a slew of levers and buttons that the emotions use to dictate behavior. The closest thing we have to a “command center” in our brains is the frontal lobes, which provide executive function. They allow us to inhibit our behavior, strategically plan our actions, and act in our own long term interests. But the emotions do not reside here - they live in the deeper (and more primitive) limbic system. In the movie, emotions had direct access to the top-level control…this might have been a better metaphor for a reptile than a primate.
Riley’s memories were formed and tinted with specific emotions. True to life, the memories were consolidated down to long term storage during sleep. Each night, when Riley goes to sleep, the "headquarters" where her emotions live shuts down. The memories that came rolling down a track earlier in the day, in the form of colored, emotion-specific balls, all get sucked up through a vacuum tube to be sent to the vast realm of long-term memories. But they aren’t necessarily accurate… when memories are retrieved and remembered, the emotions associated with them can change, such as when Sadness turns a gold-colored, joyful memory into a blue-hued one. Memories also faded over time, and really faded memories were eventually dumped. One of the funniest bits in the movie was a memory of a commercial jingle, which was recalled up to central command at random times.
In the movie, while Joy and Sadness are lost in other parts of the mind, Fear, Anger and Disgust are in a state of panic — an appropriate depiction of what can happen during a traumatic experience or a major life event, to children and adults alike. Such memories can actually require more time to identify mixed emotions, process the experience and store a memory.
The film introduces the concept of a “core memory” from “a super important time in her life” that powers Riley’s various personality traits. Because of her experiences, she loves hockey and values friendship, and is honest, humorous and close to her family. This is based on the concept of the “core self” and “core beliefs” that shapes a personality. These resulting traits can evolve or fade away over time, but they are always part of you, whether you like them or not.
I loved the movie! It was funny, and I highly recommend it...whether you have children or not. I think that it will motivate people to think about brain function, but it may also increase some poor brain metaphors in the public consciousness. Inside Out is just the beginning…Riley is only eleven years old in the film, leaving plenty of room for a sequel. After all, on the new control panel, there is that button that no one understands…..pub-er-ty. Maybe there will be a new character…Hormones…the one that hijacks emotions!