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Headquarters? What Headquarters? Behind Pixar's Inside Out

Emotional regulation and the "Headquarters" in "Inside Out"

Inside Out website
Source: Inside Out website

June 21, 2015

Summary: Inside Out is a fantastic movie, highlighting the inner life of a girl, with plenty of positive female role models in the form of emotions. There’s an unlikely and usually unsung hero in sadness, who leads ultimately to transformation, relationship and empathy. Through Pixar’s magic, we learn a lot about childhood vulnerability, emotional regulation, adaptation and growth. Of course, reality is more complicated than the movies. Emotional regulation, and the idea of a “Headquarters” in our mind, bear a closer look.

I absolutely loved Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out! I saw it Sunday with four friends, our number matching the five basic emotions portrayed in the young heroine’s brain. I wore a blue shirt specifically to champion what I knew from several over-the-top reviews to be the unlikely heroine of the movie, sadness. (Sadness, voiced by Phyllis Smith from The Office is, of course, blue. You might like my post on the winter blues.) While I was initially taken aback by the overwhelming praise those reviews gave the film (see quotes below), I was won over almost instantly by its heart, art, thoughtfulness and imaginative fancy. Inside Out draws on the most elemental stories of childhood: attachment, innocence, joy, relationships, and loss leading to vulnerability, sadness, empathy and maturity. The film finds value in all emotions, even the difficult ones that we or others often try to suppress, while recognizing that mental health and growth require higher level integration and relationship. It will surely help many children and adults identify basic emotions, find words and understandings for their inner lives, and further the cause of emotional intelligence and empathy in the world. "Emotions color everything," the film says, "and we can become more skillful with them as we mature." (Hey, maybe we should drop a few thousand copies on ISIS and other militaristically inclined individuals while we’re at it. That could really be disarming. Cheaper and more humane than airstrikes, but hey, what do I know?)

Peter Debruge in Variety: “promises to forever change the way people think about the way people think” and “people will still be thinking in terms of these anthropomorphized Emotions long after movies as we know them are gone, in the distant future, when screens are obsolete and immersive stories are beamed directly into your frontal lobe.”

A.O. Scott in the New York Times: “You will look at the screen and know yourself.”

By all means, see and enjoy the movie. That being said, Inside Out is hardly the last word on emotions, personalities or human identity.

My first question after I left the movie was “headquarters? what headquarters?” In the film, young Riley’s brain has an HQ run by the embodiments of the five basic emotions. These emotions were identified by UCSF Psychologist Paul Ekman and colleagues after studying facial expressions concordant across cultures. Sadness, Fear, Disgust, Joy and Anger are the basic five portrayed, with Surprise (the sixth) left out. More recently, other researchers looking at facial muscles compressed the list to four basic emotions, with Fear and Surprise sharing common origins, as well as Anger and Disgust. See the Changing Minds website for a great breakdown of basic emotions and their “babies”. (As an aside, research has shown that not only do emotions lead to facial expressions, but facial expressions can lead to emotions! Putting on a happy face actually works, and smiles are contagious!)

Marvin Minsky and others would probably also wonder whether there’s an HQ per se. In The Society of Mind (1986) he outlined his theories of how mind emerges from brain. He proposed that many smaller processes, called “agents” become interdependent to form “societies”, and intelligence emerges, along with identity, personality, etc. Emotions, memories, knowledge, rules (other peoples and your own) – all intertwine in complex formulations.

Paul MacLean proposed the “triune brain” in the 1960s. In brief (and to perhaps oversimplify) we have a reptilian (lizard) brain (responsible for survival/fight-or-flight responses), a mammalian (mouse) brain (responsible for reward-seeking behavior, reproduction and parenting) and a primate (monkey) brain (focused on abstraction, planning, higher order cognition and perception, and to some adherents, higher order emotions such as love and compassion, and “wisdom” as well). Each of these little HQ’s debates the others, so to speak, and action results. As Rick Hanson says, for best results, “pet (soothe) the lizard, feed the mouse, and hug the monkey.” As the warning label reads, “individual results may vary.” And yes, unfortunately sometimes my lizard tries to slap around my lemur. There’s a movie in this, somewhere. Pixar take note. (See Hot Tips for Relationship Success, Part 2 for a summary of using this system in relationships.) However helpful this is, it is scientifically imprecise. The point is that emotions emerge from several areas.

"pet the lizard, feed the mouse, and hug the monkey" - Rick Hanson

The limbic regulation model is helpful to understand how we feel and decide to act. Neuroscientists note that the thalamus (our central relay switchboard) sends impulses to both the amygdala (part of the limbic fight-or-flight fear response pathway) and the cortex (reason, planning, love, compassion, etc.). Which predominates is a matter of experience, memory, learning, intention, practice and many other contextual factors. In addition, we have what’s called an “open limbic loop”, which means we not only self-regulate our emotional responses, we regulate each other as well. A calm and empathic person can help soothe an angry or fearful person, for example. There were two great examples of this in the film (spoiler alert): (1) Riley’s dad distracts her from her disgust of broccoli and anger at being forced to eat it by flying the spoon towards her and saying “here comes an airplane!” (here’s the clip);

and (2) Riley’s mom connects to her when she’s feeling sad and motivates her to put on a brave face.

(Daniel Goleman’s articles on regulating emotion and developing emotional intelligence with attention and relationship are instructive here.)

Other systems are important in regulating emotion and determining actions as well, and might thus alter our ideas of a “Headquarters”. Attraction to pleasure and avoidance of pain is being studied at the neuronal level. Hormones, such as oxytocin, vasopressin and cortisol, are part of emotional responses and influence behavior and emotion in turn. Freud’s drives and the id/ego/superego are still informative, as are object relations, self psychology and other ways of understanding inner life. Certainly cortical regions regulate impulses from other areas of the brain, and in combination might be called an HQ. But even the heart and gut process emotions as well, and have their say. Who’s in charge? It may just depend on what’s going on, inside and out. (I’m listening to my gut on this last point; I don’t personally have any research to support my assertion.)

I’m actually partial to a view of mind and personhood captured perfectly by an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Captain Picard shows off an artifact acquired from an alien civilization. It’s a bust of a person that contains many people within it. It’s similar in concept to artist Tenzing Rigdol’s Hollywood Buddha, and the Ubuntu proverb “people become people through other people”. I wrote about it in a sonnet, “Collection of Parts”, which you can hear starting at about minute 1 of this presentation at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco about the neuropsychology of collecting.

In other words, I think we all contain “multiple personalities” (or neural networks) that can be activated in different circumstances, sometimes many at once. Psychoanalytic theory might call them our internal self-object relations. Jungian theory might call them archetypes. Internal Family Systems theory might call them parts or subpersonalities. Each network has its own valences and strengths, emotionally and cognitively. I’ve found that with mindfulness, and development of “observer awareness” these networks can come into better coherence and harmony. Maybe this “Lookout Tower” is a better central actor than Inside Out’s Emotion HQ. But even this lookout tower is dispersed. The attention, emotional regulation and body awareness of meditators are currently thought to be localized in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction and the right anterior insula. Some call this the “experiential self,” of awareness of present experience as opposed to the “narrative self” that tells stories about our experience. Sometimes, as the mind quiets, a network normally suppressed (or even forgotten) can come to the fore, upending the balance until it too is brought into coherence and relationship with the other networks with attention, compassion, acceptance, and exploration.

“Sometimes it’s like pokémon of the psyche up here,” says my Lookout Tower. “Psychemon. And when Psychemon has babies with Rashomon…LOOKOUT!”

Maybe “who’s in charge?” is not as important a question as “who’s paying attention?”

Inside Out worked on many levels (basic emotions, core memories, islands of personality/identity, etc.), but beyond the issue of an HQ and how emotions are regulated, there were important points that were left out or minimized, for sake of continuity and simplicity. But it helps to develop some familiarity with these expansions.

  1. It’s essential to identify our basic emotions, but our emotional world is a lot more complicated than these, and emotions are different than longer lasting moods. We saw (in Riley’s mom especially) how emotions could “mature” over time. The closing credits displayed the tremendous variation, subtlety and flavor of each individual’s inner world. Riley’s transformation hinges not on simply sadness, but loss, nostalgia, wistful longing, mourning, and acceptance.
  2. One primal and powerful emotion left unexplored was shame. It’s not one of the “basic six”, but relates to one’s self-concept and concept of self as perceived by others. (One of my friends called it the “baby” of fear and disgust! Another said “Anger and Fear definitely make a lot of babies.”) Riley did not just experience sadness when she cried in front of her classmates in San Francisco, she seemed embarrassed and ashamed of herself too. Shame can lead to feelings of isolation, exclusion, and difference, powerful forces in the lives of young people, heightened all the more in the age of social networks where popularity rules supreme. See “Do Shame and Exclusion Mediate Dissatisfaction on Facebook?” Love and all its forms, guilt, disappointment, betrayal, jealousy, awe (shoutout to Dacher Keltner!) … the list goes on. What emotion did you wish got more screentime?
  3. Riley’s journey is largely internal and personal. This makes a great story, and is very empowering for children. But in truth, we profoundly alter each other’s neurobiology and narratives. We rewire each other, and rewire our world through one another. We create new narratives with each other. These “stories between us” are perhaps more powerful than anything our individual HQ’s could arrange. It’s beyond society of mind. It’s relationship, family, community, or society itself, with all their heartaches, hopes, and potentials. It takes a village to make a child, and a child can change the village, to borrow a phrase. Some would call it transpersonal psychology or resonance or even “God.” It’s one of the reasons I’m so down on social media. While it allows us to express and connect, I just didn’t find it to be a depth experience in relationship. See my Op Ed in the New York Daily News.
  4. Expanding on this, relationship can activate and transform emotions. Counseling with an experienced professional can really catalyze personal growth and development.

If you’re interested in a longer set of essays on anger and relationships, you can download my e-book on Asian American Anger for free on my website. Covering domestic violence, and male and female and relational anger, it may be interesting regardless of ethnicity.

Thanks for reading through to the end of this long blog post. I’m sure I’ve oversimplified and left out a lot. I’m still learning and thinking about all this, and am not a neuroscientist. I look forward to your comments and observations. It’s wonderful that a film could provoke so much reflection and relationship. The conversation with my friends after the movie was especially heartwarming and interesting, especially learning about one friend’s 11-year old daughter’s extraordinary capacity for empathy and understanding, and her mother’s love for her and willingness to learn from her. We all have a lot to learn from each other.

Kudos to the filmmakers for their achievement, which is sure to help children, and “children of all ages”, everywhere!

© 2015 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.

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