The real psychology behind ‘Inside Out’ is blowing our minds

Video essayist Evan Puschak, aka The Nerdwriter, is known for dissecting the realities behind pop culture phenomenons. In his latest segment on the psychology behind Pixar’s fantastic Inside Out, he examines the psychological underpinnings of the film, compares them with widely held theories, and explains why the film is, in fact, a masterpiece of science. (We totally agree). In his video, Puschak suggests that Inside Out “is a far more nuanced take on the inner workings of the mind, appropriate for a post-Freudian age where we’re encouraged to embrace our emotions rather than urged to master them.”

After all, at the end of the film Joy learns that sadness is not something her beloved Riley should avoid, but rather acknowledge, to, as Puschak says, “feel what needs feeling.” Now if only we could remember that on our own dark days.

As Puschak explains, Inside Out director Pete Docter didn’t invent the idea that five emotions (joy, sadness, fear, disgust, anger) balance the control of a person’s mind. Rather, he borrowed the concept from Paul Ekman, a prominent scientist in the psychology of emotions. Ekman posited that there are seven basic emotions (with corresponding universal facial signals), the five mentioned in the film, plus surprise and contempt. However, while Ekman’s model is currently the dominant theory in the psychology of emotion, “the field is a far more fractious one than the film scientific consultants let on.” Ekman’s theory of emotions may be the one we hear the loudest, but that certainly doesn’t mean it’s the only one.

Inside Out suggests that a child’s experiences are defined by whichever emotion is strongest and that a child’s overall personality has an emotional driver. For the first half of the film, Riley is a happy child because Joy is the captain. Puschak warns that this model stands in direct opposition to many key insights of psychoanalysis which suggest that emotions can be transferred, transformed, or distorted expressions of unconscious ideas or repressed experiences.

In other words, feelings of sadness or joy or fear are frequently far removed from their causes and are often not what they seem to be. We can be laughing when we’re actually quite sad. Puschak adds, “Understanding emotion as the driver and not the expression of ideas and experience may ignore underlying causes. Indeed, the idea that emotions or memories may be separate or discrete is a dubious one.” But, he points out that Docter totally acknowledges this in his film by having Riley’s control panel expanded at the end, and by having her memories tinged by more than one emotion. Sadness, we learn, can work in conjunction with happiness.

While he suggests that Riley is a more “robotic” depiction of human psychology, Puschak says “a more complex and complete framework for the inner-workings of the mind can be found in Joy herself, a character who questions and reflects, who turns inward, not to another smaller headquarters, but a cauldron of indistinct compounds of feelings, influenced by chemistry, situation and other people.”

Of course, it’s not up to the filmmakers, but falls to us as adults to explain to these children that emotions such as sadness and joy are not self-contained or discrete feelings. “Inside Out may not be perfectly accurate, but the film inspires something more important  than that, something that doesn’t require scientific exactness—emotional intelligence.” We have to agree. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to go hug my Bing-Bong stuffed animal tight.

(Images via Disney/Pixar)

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