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5 Difficult Concepts Made Easier by Disney's 'Inside Out'

Portraying emotions, development, and memory so children understand.

Image courtesy of
Source: Image courtesy of

Disclaimer: This post gives away some plot lines from the Disney movie Inside Out. Read at your own risk.

The other day, the family and I did something that millions of other families do on a typical Sunday afternoon. We went to the movies. The movie of choice? Disney's recently released cartoon movie Inside Out. I entered the theater with excited anticipation—I love movies and especially loved the actors. Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Lewis Black ...

What I didn't expect was how valuable I'd find the movie to be, both as an academic who studies an aspect of early childhood emotion development and as a parent.

Inside Out follows the story of Riley, a young girl whose world is turned upside-down when her family moves from an idyllic life in Minnesota to a stressful one in San Fransisco. The story is told through Riley's emotions—joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust—and follows her transition not just geographically from the midwest to the west coast, but also developmentally from Riley-as-a-child to Riley-as-a-preteen.

So why do I find this movie so valuable? It provides an accessible and memorable framework for understanding some rather complex ideas. Allow me to outline five difficult concepts Inside Out makes easier to explain:

1. Basic Emotions

Inside Out offers a framework for understanding basic emotions that is accessible to kids. Although not all who study emotions agree upon which to consider the "basic emotions," this movie includes key ones: happy, sad, angry, scared, and disgusted. Plus, in the movie each emotion is caricatured by the design of the characters, their actions, and the actors portraying them.

This cartoon-caricature aspect works to help kids remember, identify, and understand emotions. Perfect case example? My family. Just this week there have been three times that my husband or I have referenced the movie when helping our young kids understand and regulate their emotions ("Is that anger you feel? Or sadness?").

Even better? The movie also depicts—though doesn't explicitly state nor explore—that different people are driven by different emotions. The lead emotion for Riley is joy, but the lead emotion for her mother is sadness and the lead emotion for her father is anger. Subtle and brilliant.

2. Emotion Development

The primary plotline in the movie involves how two very different emotions learn to understand each other and work together. Riley's emotion processing begins basic—there are five emotions that have a basic control panel through which only one emotion can take action at a time. At the end of the movie, the emotions receive a different control panel. It's more complex. There are more buttons and controls, and it presumably allows for more than one emotion to work together.

This again offers a beautiful framework to help us explain and understand how our emotional selves become more sophisticated and complex as we age. As Riley shifts from childhood to her preteen years, her emotions become more nuanced and can include more complex emotions like shame, guilt, pride, and embarrassment. All because her basic emotions now work together with a more complex control panel.

3. Memories

Although most of this post centers on the portrayal of emotions in Inside Out, another neural process underlying the movie's storyline involves memory. This movie provides a beautiful framework for understanding and explaining various complexities of memory processing, including:

  • How memories are formed (key moments from everyday life are stored temporarily before moving to long-term storage. For Riley, these come in the form of balls storing the memory that get sent to her emotions in central command).

  • How memories move to long-term storage (otherwise known as memory consolidation, a large part of which occurs during sleep. Riley's memory-storage balls get sent to her long-term memory every night after she falls asleep).
  • How memories can be changed (in the movie, when Sadness touches a joyful memory, it becomes tinged blue with sadness. This is true for our memories—they are not stagnant, but can change as we evolve and create new experiences).
  • How memories can be forgotten (there is only so much we can remember. Experiences, information, even people get lost if not recalled on a regular basis. Riley's lost long-term memories turn gray and are "vacuumed away" from her long-term memory on a regular basis by little maintenance workers in her head).

4. Emotional Memories

Our most potent memories are those formed during intense emotional experiences. This process is connected to deep, primitive processes in our brain that evolved to help us survive. An experience laced with fear, such as facing a tiger or bear ... we'd be sure to remember to avoid those situations in the future in large part due to the fear association. Alternately, hearing a childhood song sung to you by a parent every night will take you right back to that safe, warm, loving memory and feeling.

In Inside Out, each of Riley's memories is tinged with an emotion. But not all her emotions are treated equally—some are stronger. The more intense emotional memories become her core memories and, in the movie, are the basis for who Riley is as a person. This depiction provides a framework for understanding not just emotional memories, but other concepts like attachment.

5. Earworms

The music therapist in me loves, loves, loves that earworms—those super-annoying catchy bits of musical melodies that play over and over and over in your head—are included in this movie. It's a thing, y'all.