A view From the Bridge

Inside Inside Out

Posted on behalf of Kerri Smith

Joy and Sadness, two of the personified emotions in Pixar's Inside Out.

Joy and Sadness, two of the personified emotions in Pixar’s Inside Out.


Moving emotional journeys are the stock-in-trade of animation studio Pixar. In their Toy Story trilogy, released in 1995, 1999 and 2010, little Andy’s toys compete for his affections as his family move, threatening to leave them behind. In the 2009 Up, even the opening sequence — a poignant recap of the elderly protagonist’s life story – had audiences blubbing.

In Inside Out, now on general release, it is the emotions – personified – that themselves go on a journey. The feelings of 11-year-old Riley are characters (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear) lodged in a neuroscientifically improbable ‘Headquarters’ reminiscent of Rene Descartes’ pineal gland — the brain area where he imagined mind governed body. This volatile crew rev into action when Riley’s parents move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco, where she faces the first big challenges of an easy life: finding new friends, getting used to a new home and school.

As Riley navigates these changes, the narrative is driven by the interplay between her emotions – particularly Joy and Sadness — and their adventures in the wild kingdom of Riley’s psyche. Joy had had the upper hand in Riley’s life to date; the central message is of the crucial role of Sadness in forming Riley’s character as she makes the bitter-sweet transition from child to teen and beyond. The adventures of Joy and Sadness form a counterpoint to Riley’s as each navigates a thrilling narrative of lost and found.

The colours of emotions drench this film: golden for Joy and green for Disgust, for instance. They tint Riley’s experiences, which are delivered to HQ like bowling balls, and thence dispatched to be enshrined in memory or forever forgotten. Many travel along tubes to long-term storage, a maze of high shelves resembling the folds of cortex when seen from above. “Let’s get those memories down to long-term!” trumpets Joy, as Riley falls asleep at the end of a happy day. I found this a compelling portrayal of memory processing: neuroscientists know that memories spend a little time in the hippocampus, where they are made, before some are shuttled to the cortex for long-term storage.

Memory in the mind’s eye

Likewise, when Riley recalls one positive memory and it is projected onto a ‘mind’s eye’ screen for her emotions in HQ to see, Sadness reaches up to re-colour it. It is well-established that memories can be rendered malleable by being recalled, and then altered by new experience before being stored again.

A handful of experiences become core memories, each powering a different aspect of Riley’s personality. Others tumble to a dark chasm where they dissolve in wisps of dust. Forgetting isn’t always this passive – remembering competing facts can cause other related information to be forgotten, for instance, and forgetting can be beneficial, freeing up processing power for new memories.

Five emotions are quite enough for Inside Out’s writers to be getting on with, but there is some debate in psychology over how many we really have. American psychologist Paul Ekman, one of the film’s scientific consultants, would have liked to see upwards of 20; others argue that there can be no more than 4. I would have been interested in seeing Surprise and Embarrassment, but perhaps the latter will play a greater part in Inside Out 2: The Teenage Years.

The physical appearance of the emotions was unsurprising: Anger is a bright-red cube, Sadness a blue blob with a frumpy jumper, and Joy an elfin figure who left little particles of yellow glitter floating in her wake. But each had their own emotional range. Joy was sometimes sad, and often worried about Riley. Was this Pixar giving us a lesson on how our own emotions can blend, or could they not make the narrative work with relentlessly one-note characters? 

There are some witty asides aimed at adults. While travelling on the Train of Thought, for instance, Joy knocks over two boxes and spills their contents. “All these Facts and Opinions look the same!” she cries, trying to shovel them back in.

The brain’s fleshy chasms and labyrinthine neuronal libraries are an inspired choice for a filmic landscape. In Pixar’s treatment, brain are transformed into psychedelic fairgrounds (‘Imaginationland’) and dark, terrifying gulfs (the ‘Unconscious’). But even with this stiff competition, our three-pound lumps of squidgy pinkness are still more exotic, surprising and mysterious. As we learn more about how we processes and react to the complexities of our world, there will surely be plenty more to inspire Pixar.  

 Kerri Smith is Nature’s podcast editor. She tweets @minikerri.


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.


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