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The Psychology of “Inside Out”: How Accurate Is It?

Ryan Kelly, PhD
Written by Ryan Kelly, PhD

Pixar — the revolutionary computer animation studio and all powerful puppeteer of human emotion — has been striving to reduce grown men to tears since 1995. Beginning with their first full-length film “Toy Story”, they have dominated “dem feels” amongst even the coldest of viewers, inspiring us to hold our loved ones tighter and cherish both the bitter and sweet moments of our lives. From quiet sobs brought on by “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo”, to knee-buckling ugly-cries forced on us by “Toy Story 3” and “Up”, the Pixarian pioneers of laughs and tears have done it again with their new film “Inside Out”; this time, by creatively and somewhat scientifically explaining the inner workings of the human mind.

“Inside Out” is the story of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, the generally joyful daughter of two loving parents, who is struggling to cope with a difficult transition and the often unstable emotions of youth. The audience is invited to experience a conceptual version of Riley’s mind to better understand who she is (i.e., her personality and memories) and how she processes the world (i.e., her thoughts and mood). To do this, we are introduced to Riley’s emotions, Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear, as well as a basic neurosystem that includes a headquarters (where the emotions reside), personality islands, a labyrinth of long term memories and a memory dump.

So, is this an accurate way to envision the human mind?

To answer this question, let’s take a look at some of the science of “Inside Out”, rating each area on a 5-point Accuracy Scale, where 1 = inaccurate, 2 = somewhat inaccurate, 3 = quasi-scientific, 4 = fairly accurate, and 5 = accurate.

Do humans have only five emotions?

Human’s have hundreds of different emotions, ranging from basic ones like anger to more nuanced ones like nostalgia; however, discrete emotion theory suggests that depicting all of these emotions would be unnecessary, as only a few core emotions are biological and similar tumblr_nk2uvi8Xg71u5cv3mo1_1280across cultures. It would have also made for an insanely chaotic movie poster. Fortunately, the “Inside Out” writer/director Pete Docter consulted with psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman, an expert on emotion, to decide on only a necessary few. Through his pioneer work on facial coding, Dr. Ekman determined that there are seven measurable facial expressions that are consistent across cultures and coded into seven sets of emotions. These include Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Surprise and Contempt. Other research suggests that the latter two emotions may be more social in nature than biological. In general, most studies support the first five core feelings as a universal model of basic human emotion. Furthermore, these five emotions have been tied directly and indirectly to specific neurological regions, pathways and processes. They are arguably necessary for survival and provide the foundation for all other emotions.

Rating: 4/5, Fairly Accurate

 

Is there really a “headquarters” of emotions that controls us?

Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear all reside in a sky-high oval office where they control Riley’s behaviors, receive her short-term memories for processing, view Riley’s dreams and store her “core” memories. It is referred to as “headquarters”, known by the other neuro-staff (e.g., memory workers, Bing Bong) as Riley’s emotional control center. Does such a place exist? Actually, kind of, and it is called the limbic system.

Rotating_brain_coloredIn our brains resides a doughnut-shaped region that includes the amygdala, hippocampus, regions of the limbic cortex and the septal area. Together, these structures have been associated with multiple functions, including emotions, drives, long-term memory formation, behavior, and learning. So, in a way, we do have a “headquarters” run by our emotions similar to what was depicted in “Inside Out”; however, there is one BIG difference between Riley’s mind and our own: the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Throughout the movie, Riley is seemingly a puppet of her emotions. If Anger throws the switch, she yells at her friend; if Joy pushes the button, she smiles and tries to cheer her mom up; if Sadness gets her sticky fingers all over Riley’s memory balls, she frowns and withdraws from loved ones. Riley is subject to a fatalistic model of behavior where emotions have absolute power, but this is not how the brain works; instead, our PFC let’s us decide what to do with our emotions. The PFC is an area of the brain that allows us to inhibit ourselves, problem-solve and be the executive decision-maker during an emotional event. If “Inside Out” were to be more accurate, Joy and her posse would be reporting to a boss in a smaller Screen Shot 2015-08-03 at 2.05.46 PM copyoffice above them, and that boss would look just like Riley. The fact is, our behaviors are influenced by our emotions and thoughts, which in turn are affected by behavior. Psychologists refer to the interrelationships between thoughts, emotions and behaviors as the “cognitive triangle”, which is a common tool used in therapy.

When we feel a certain emotion, whether it be triggered by an event or a biological process, we can regulate it by thinking and behaving counter to that feeling. Without emotional regulation, there would be a lot more “stubbed toe” related murders and “I just watched ‘The Fox and the Hound’” related suicides. Now, to be fair, Riley is 11-years-old, and that is a tough age. She is able to think like an adult for the first time, has an overactive limbic system and an under-active PFC (which will not finish developing until her 20s); throw in a difficult life-transition and it’s no wonder she’s having trouble regulating her emotions, but that’s not to say she would be a drone, either.

Rating: 3/5, Quasi-scientific

 

Are our personalities comprised of core memories/islands?

At specific moments in Riley’s life, she formed core memories (e.g., making her first goal in hockey) that lead to five personality “islands” (e.g., hockey island), and when these memories were lost, her personality changed. Is this how personality development works? Probably not, but it’s a really cool idea, and it does stick to some good theoretical concepts.

Inside-Out-Islands-of-PersonalityPersonality and memories are related to each other, but not quite as depicted. One way is that personality affects what we remember and how. For instance, studies show that men who rate high in extraversion (i.e., being outgoing) tend to remember more positive moments, while women who rate high in neuroticism (i.e., sensitive to stress) tend to remember more negative moments. You could also argue that each of us do in fact have five personality islands (of sorts), but with far less exciting names. These would be openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (makes you miss “Goofball Island”, doesn’t it?). Refer to table below for descriptions.

Often referred to as the “Big 5”, these trait areas are based on the prominent theory that each person’s personality can be mapped onto five spectrums of relatively stable characteristics that define who people are and how theyBig 5 might behave. These characteristics are considered “relatively stable” because, as was the case with Riley, they are subject to change. Studies show that change in personality can be caused by changes in geographic/institutional location (e.g., moving away, going to college), marital status, income level, and perhaps most importantly, well-being. So, overall, research does suggest that (1) we may have five core parts of our personality, (2) our personality is associated with our memories, and (3) that our personality can change, but not in the same way that was depicted in “Inside Out”.

Rating: 3/5, Quasi-scientific

 

Do memories go through a filter/storage process? Do they actually fade and disappear?

As Riley sees, hears, feels and otherwise experiences the world, her memories are formed into glass balls that are initially processed within headquarters. They stay there for a short while, and are either discarded or sent to the long-term memory labyrinth (which appears like the surface of the brain from above). They remain there until memory workers choose to send them to the memory dump, where they are basically lost forever. The memories that remain in storage are gradually fading, unless they are sent back to headquarters for recollection (e.g., the catchy gum commercial song). As it turns out, this is not far off from what we know.

Firstly, there are three basic types of memory: sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory. As our brains are bombarded with sensory input, that streaming information is rapidly stored and removed depending on what we are attending to in that moment. When we need to briefly remember or focus on something, our brains temporarily hold and process that information in short-term memory. From there, repetition and rehearsal determines if that memory will be discarded or consolidated into long term memory. Once consolidated, they are stored widely throughout the cortex — not just in one area — which goes along with the portrayal of Riley’s vast memory library similar to wrinkles on the brain’s surface (i.e., cortex).inside out memory

In “Inside Out”, the long-term memories appear as emotionally hued glass balls that stream audio and visual output. The reality of it is not so different. Long-term memories are believed to be groups of neurons that are primed to fire together in the same pattern as the original experience, and include audio, visual and emotional information; however, these neuron groups are subject to the frequent changes that the brain goes through and are repeatedly reconstructed over time. In fact, it’s fair to say that when you are remembering something, you are actually just remembering a reconstruction of that memory from when it was last recalled. The longer a memory goes without being recalled, the more likely it will lose detail or become inaccurate. This may equate to the “fading” effect on the glass memory balls. Now, whether long-term memories are forgotten forever (as was the case with the memory dump in “Inside Out”) is a subject of debate, as some argue that “forgetting” something may just mean that the memory has been reconstructed or encoded incorrectly and can be repaired with specific cues or prompting.

Rating: 4/5, Fairly Accurate

 

The Overall Verdict: 3.5/5

Quasi-scientific to Fairly Accurate

Not bad! Here’s the deal: the human mind is extremely vast and complicated. In my opinion, it is the greatest frontier of our age, followed closely by space; so, presenting it comprehensively with 100% accuracy is a HUGE undertaking (if not impossible), not to mention that Pixar needed to make it creative, fun and easy to understand. Overall, the conceptual mind presented in “Inside Out” has succeeded in increasing psychological awareness to millions of individuals and families in a way that is creative, exciting and somewhat scientifically-based. This is not easy to do, and often goes undervalued within the scientific community. Fortunately, it has garnered wide acclaim and praise, and rightfully so. Personally, I lava’d it.

Aren’t There More Than Five Emotions

Getting Emotional with Pixar’s Inside Out

Pixar is Turning Emotions Inside Out 

Ranking All the Pixar Films

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About the author

Ryan Kelly, PhD

Ryan Kelly, PhD

Ryan "The Pirate" Kelly is a psychologist, published researcher, artist, and failed space cowboy. He is also the co-author of Max Gamer, a graphic novel about a boy with Asperger's (www.maxgameronline.com), and author of Mobi-C4, a to-be-published sci-fi graphic novel.

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