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Inside “Inside Out”

At the Brighton Science Festival, a panel of experts discussed the inner-workings of the mind, as brought to life by Pixar’s Oscar-winning film

David Bennun | February 26th 2016

Pixar are quite ruthless in their own way. It is not a new observation that the animation studio’s success lies in making films that are ostensibly for children but which appeal hugely to adults. Their ruthlessness lies in the licence this gives them for brazen emotional manipulation, which they exploit brilliantly, and with a sophistication few film-makers can rival.

It seems inevitable, in hindsight, that they would eventually make a film in which emotions themselves are the protagonists – cut out the middle-men, as it were, and go straight to the source. That film is the Oscar-winning “Inside Out”, as profound, moving and hilarious a work as they’ve created, which has been acclaimed by psychologists for offering genuine insight into the life of the mind. Its principal characters are five emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust – responsible for running the life of an 11-year-old girl, Riley. The plot revolves around the challenge they face in helping her cope with a move to a new city.

At the Brighton Science Festival, I attended an illuminating talk by three experts from different fields who used the film as a springboard to discuss its themes: emotion, memory and cognition. The festival’s founder, the science author and puppeteer Richard Robinson, introduced the evening by saying that the premise of “Inside Out” is correct: it is emotion that rules our minds, not vice-versa, and we select facts to suit those emotions.

The lively neuroscientist Dr Harry Witchel, who would make a splendid animated character himself, addressed the film’s idea of indivisible, universal human feelings. Here, “Inside Out” draws on the work of the American psychologist Paul Ekman, who acted as a consultant on the film and whose hypothesis of universal core emotions (his list also includes surprise and contempt) served as a basis for the film’s characters.

Witchel argues against Ekman’s idea that emotions are fixed and absolute. Rather, he thinks they are plotted as points along a trio of axes: arousal (that is, activity), valence (positive to negative moods), and dominance and submission. This model allows you to locate and identify emotions without naming them; seen this way, emotions are, literally, three-dimensional.

Dr Peggy St. Jacques, a lecturer in psychology at Sussex University, explained how accurate the film’s analogy of memory is. “Inside Out” shows us how some memories stick – particularly earworms like “Triple Deck gum!” – while others fade and are lost for ever. The film’s vast, convoluted memory centre resembles the hippocampus, which was once thought to be the physical location of memory, but is now believed to be a visual menu to a network stretching throughout the brain. In the film, blobbish workers not entirely unlike the brain’s protein molecules consign dimming memories to oblivion.

Memories themselves (represented in the film by orbs – pictured) change through retrieval, which can either reinforce memories or distort them. A crucial part of the film’s story is the way memories formed by Joy become bittersweet when they are touched by Sadness, while those born of distress may later prove happy. Memory and imagination, says St Jacques, occur in the same areas of the brain, which helps explain why memory can be so malleable.

Dr Tiffany Watt Smith is a historian of emotion. Like Witchel, she does not regard the emotions represented by the film’s characters as absolute. Her work has uncovered remarkable historical and cultural variation: sadness was once as prized as happiness is now (its importance is beautifully underlined in the film). And nostalgia was first identified in 17th-century Europe as a form of extreme homesickness which would claim fatalities as late as the first world war.

Do the characters of “Inside Out” act as a kind of primary-colour palette, from which other emotions can be mixed – or do we have many more emotions to begin with? If so, how many are there? Robinson put this to the audience. The only person to give a confident answer was a girl around Riley’s age, who went with 20. Robinson concurred. I still have no idea. But Pixar’s cast of five is so endearing, the viewer never feels the lack of more.

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