Homunculi on Screen: The Mediated Mind

Left to right: Benjamin Brock, Mona Sarshar, Frank Farley, Michelle Beach, Lauren Butler, Bernadette Maher

Left to right: Benjamin Brock, Mona Sarshar, Frank Farley, Michelle Beach, Lauren Butler, Bernadette Maher

Frank Farley, Michelle Beech, Benjamin Brock, Lauren Butler, Bernadette Maher, Mona Sarshar
Temple University

A review of Inside out
Directors:  Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen

The 2015 Disney/Pixar film Inside Out is a marvel of mental gymnastics played out through animated characters representing emotions of joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust.  These comic-strip characters, what the first author has here coined “emotiComs,” inhabit the brain of a girl named Riley.  They represent emotions involved in her inner mental life that influence her outer life—her behavior, moods and motivation.  It’s a digital cartoon version of the mind-body problem, captured as “Inside” and “Out.”  The arrival of this movie is no surprise in the era of brain imaging of psychological states and behavior.  Inside Out delineates a mental space and populates it with interesting psychological characters, the “emotiComs,” who are working to make Riley happy, the central goal, or angry, etc.  Will positive psychology triumph over negative psychology?  Throughout this glorious mélange of mental processes we see the hypostatization of many emotional and cognitive concepts such as core memory, deconstruction, the unconscious (harboring Riley’s darkest fears), inductive reasoning, and a humorous reference to memory “there’s déjà vu, there’s déjà vu, there’s déjà vu” by an “emotiCom.”  There are complex “Islands,” e.g., Honesty Island, floating in a mental space, that can disintegrate due to a psychological event by Riley, e.g., trying to steal something.  This film is a psychologist’s delight, full of ideas we work with daily but are here instantiated in an amazing media-graphic and fantastical environment.

On the surface, Inside Out seems like a playful children’s film in which some of the brain’s primary emotions are personified.  For this reason it appeals to a younger audience, but its complexity and subject matter—a young girl who struggles to cope with a traumatic family move—make it a film worth watching for all ages.  There are many aspects of the film that are psychologically accurate.  The storage of long-term memories and the brain’s filtering out of memories that aren’t as important was a focal point of the film, and was done well.  There are other instances that may confuse the younger audience, such as the use of a “thought train” that has stations and rides around within the brain, and the different “cities” that represented aspects of Riley’s personality.  Because there is so much depth to the film, it presents a great learning opportunity for the viewer, and could well be analyzed in a psychology classroom.

When sadness, the emotiCom, touches a happy memory, it transforms it into a sad one.  When fear witnesses Riley introducing herself to a new class, the fear emotiCom creates great fear. The underlying message is that feelings are in control of one’s thoughts and behaviors.  Children may incorporate this message without understanding that their thoughts and cognition can control their feelings.  Another dangerous idea for the viewer is that one bad “core memory” has the ability to destroy entire pillars of a person’s personality.  If this was the case, we would all run around scared that events could destroy our character.  In a developmentally appropriate way, we want to teach children to recognize their feelings and emotions and to manage them in a healthy manner.  Inside Out may take a step in the wrong direction by teaching children that their emotions are in control, and additionally that the mind could be a scary place.

The movie tried to emphasize two powerful emotions as paramount among all the emotions that we have as human beings. “Joy” had the most positive power and “sadness” had the most negative power in the manipulation of Riley’s mind and feelings compared to other emotions.

Parents can garner some lessons from the movie.  First, early experiences can have a significant, lasting impact on children.  The role you as a parent choose to play can either aid or detract from your child’s development.  Second, life is complicated and complex.  A move to a new home or a first day of school can be wrought with anxiety and excitement.  Be sure to recognize, appreciate, and respect what your child is going through.  Third, empathy is key.  Try to remember what it was like when you grew up and you will be much more likely to understand how or why your child may be acting or feeling the way that they are.  And remember, it’s OK to share your emotions with your child; it may bring you both closer.  And finally, family is an always developing, foundational support.  Your child needs you.

Inside Out was a sweet, enjoyable movie.  Observing what happens inside of a character in this fashion is interesting and unusual, but the less obvious aspects of this film were the most fun. Disney seemed to place little Easter eggs we can all relate to into the film. When Riley is about to fall asleep for the first night in her new house, her emotions run frantic, desperate to keep her happy.  When her mother says goodnight and thanks her for staying the same “happy girl,” all of the emotions suddenly calm down. When we must be resilient and face challenges, nothing feels better than being appreciated for that resilience when we think no one’s watching. When Joy and Bing Bong are stuck with the lost memories in the unconscious, it’s singing a song that leads them to the rocket and the way out, similar to how any one of us might listen to old songs, with the return of old memories.

Overall, it was disappointing how little we got to know Riley.  The movie was a sophisticated technical programming and graphical exercise—but none of us cried, few of us laughed.  This movie, brilliant as it is, is out of sync with the Disney/Pixar tradition of emotional engagement of the viewer.  We only understood Riley in the sense of the emotiComs.  Each emotion, by nature, did not have a multi-faceted personality.  The result is that we follow very basic mental constructions, and miss out on the actual person—Riley herself.  The movie promotes the false idea that our emotions are separate from “ourselves,” and out of our control, neglecting that we, ourselves, are dynamic fully realized characters.

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