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Lessons from Films: Inside Out

· Lessons from Films,Wellbeing


Giving us a clever insight into the human mind, Disney Pixar's Inside Out follows an eleven year old girl called Riley and the emotions that drive her: Joy, sadness, fear, disgust and anger. Up at headquarters they direct Riley's behaviour as she undergoes the difficult life transition of moving to a new home. At the beginning, Joy introduces the team and their jobs. Joy keeps Riley happy, Fear keeps her safe, Anger cares about fairness and Disgust prevents her from being poisoned (literally and socially). Then Joy says that she isn't really sure what Sadness is for - this is the beginning of one of the major plot lines as Joy develops her own emotional intelligence and Sadness realises her purpose.

Surprisingly Scientific

Before delving into the ‘message’ it is worth noting that the film does a fantastic job of displaying the human mind in a scientific but playful way. As a psychology graduate I was impressed at how accessible the concepts of memory were made to kids. Here are just a few examples of good science at work:

  • The characters at brain headquarters make decisions in the pre-frontal cortex, the most developed part of the brain.
  • All of Riley’s behaviours, feelings and interactions are physically stored as short term memories.
  • Short term memories can be deposited in to long term, but on occasion, do not always make it there.
  • The memory banks are cleverly animated to reflect the brains crinkled surface and complex networking.
  • Within the memory banks each memory orb shines with a different glow to reflect how long since it was activated. Those which are dull are eventually forgotten, but those with high emotional salience or practical use tend to stay.
  • Memory bank workers simulate the ‘random firing’ in the brain to occasionally elicit memories – such as remembering a theme tune as you daydream.
  • Emotional perceptions in the present moment can change our memory of past events.

In addition, there are also plenty of scientific puns about the areas of the brain and the functions of particular workers throughout Riley’s mind. Watch out for the ‘train of thought’ and the facts / opinions blunder!

Inside Out, Disney, Pixar, emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Disgust, emotional intelligence, emotional processing, film, movie

Understanding Your Emotions

The biggest message to take from the film is how important it is to understand the purpose of your emotions. Studies have shown that being able to define the emotional state you are in makes coping with your feelings better. The film also alludes to the importance expressing your emotions has in social groups.

Riley is primarily controlled by Joy – happy go lucky, enthusiastic and optimistic. This autopilot sees her well at the start of the film whilst things are good, but as Riley copes with the loss of important aspects of her life, Joy’s reaction to situations becomes ineffective. Asking the other emotions to look on the bright side and think positively starts to become tedious and it almost borders on denial of the circumstances. This is really interesting to apply to real life – where small doses of optimism during adversity are desirable, but over doing it prevents you from dealing with the situation in hand and can become burdensome to others. A further example in the film is where another character, Bing Bong, is also experiencing loss and sadness. Joy attempts to cheer him up by being silly, telling jokes and being overly positive. This behaviour is totally well meaning but comes across as a little insensitive and doesn’t make Bing Bong feel any better. This is where sadness starts to shine…

Inside Out, Disney, Pixar, emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Disgust, emotional intelligence, emotional processing, film, movie

The Role Of Sadness

If we are feeling down and something genuinely troubles us then phrases like: it will be alright, cheer up, people have it worse than you etc can make us feel even worse. Why is this? Because it denies our right to be sad. The person trying to cheer us up is well meaning, but not really exercising empathy and understanding what we are feeling. They are totally skipping a step in emotional processing, hoping to fast forward to the part where we are happy again. Inside Out subtly tells the audience that sometimes we just need to be sad, and that’s OK.

As Bing Bong reflects on his upset, the character Sadness sits beside him. She relates to him by imagining what his loss must feel like and stays with him as he cries. This shows us the power of empathy. While Joy is busy trying to ‘fix’ someone’s bad mood, Sadness recognises that sometimes people just need to be listened to and understood. This can actually make us feel respected and cared for in a way that lifts our mood again.

As well as showing empathy towards others, Sadness later discovers her other purpose: eliciting support from social groups. Joy looks over a previous happy memory of Riley’s. When she rewinds, she discovers that the initial memory was one of sadness. Riley’s disappointment in herself encouraged her friends and family to come to her aid and show that they cared for her, resulting in a happy ending to the memory. Joy experiences a moment of revelation and when the two emotions return to headquarters she knows just how to make things better for Riley. Not by being optimistic, but by displaying her sadness to mum and dad. This allows them to understand the concerns she had been bottling up all along, show their support and love for her as well as later discuss solutions for coping with the things she misses about home. Sometimes, sadness is a great way to unite people and deepen existing bonds by sharing vulnerability.

Final Thoughts

Most family films come with a message or moral, but what makes Inside Out stand out so much is the complexity of the message. Explaining emotional intelligence and scientific concepts in a family friendly way is not an easy task but the film certainly succeeds whilst always being entertaining. It’s well worth a watch!

Image credits:

Inside Out by Hinoki Pastry, 2016

Inside Out by AriellaMay, 2016

Sadness by LashiaLee, 2016

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