Skip Dine Young Ph.D.

Movies and the Mind

'Inside-Out' Goes Deep Inside

Insights into sadness and the multiplicity of self

Posted Sep 09, 2015

For twenty years, Pixar Animation has been producing movies that are technically brilliant, aesthetically bold, and psychological insightful. The studio has done it again with this summer’s blockbuster, Inside Out.

No other studio could get away with a premise that is so blatantly psycho-educational—“Let’s make a cartoon that represents different aspect of brain functioning as it relates to emotions, memory and identity.” It sounds like something dreamed up at a conference for the teaching of psychology. One can imagine the product of such a plan coming off like a cheesily-made video that teachers show to unimpressed students to kill time.

Yet Inside Out manages to maintain its entertaining flow through out and even offer some insights along the way—human beings have different parts to ourselves and these different parts do not always have the same motivations. This idea has seen many variations in the history of psychology. Modern brain research argues that we have separate neural systems for each of our primary emotions; while these systems interact, one emotion can dominant in a particular situation that requires emphatic action (like anger in a fight). A currently popular approach to psychotherapy called Internal Family Systems asserts that everybody has different parts to themselves and that there can be trouble when one of these parts separates from the rest of the self. I am partial to the classic theory of Carl Jung that argues that each of us is inhabited by a variety of archetypes or “characters” that compete for influence in our everyday lives.

In Inside Out, the immediate appeal of witnessing the emotion-based characters of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear interact with each other inside the mind of 10-year-old Riley makes the idea of the “multiplicity of self” seem like common sense. With a little reflection, who is not able to relate to an internal experience of conflict between different voices and impulses when faced with a complicated interpersonal situation or a difficult choice? The movie takes this idea and runs with it in ways that are funny, exciting and touching (not to mention box office gold).

Despite this pop culture endorsement, the multidimensional self remains a controversial idea to many (including some psychologists). We like to hang onto a notion of personal identity in which we think of ourselves as having a single, unified self that is completely knowable and responsible for all our behaviors. Ultimately, this notion is not supportable in everyday life however.

Imagine the feeling of disorientation upon learning that a man you know to be a devoted, loving husband has cheated on his wife. We might try to solve this dilemma by simply changing our evaluation of the man (“He’s a jerk”), but what if we know him well and can think of a myriad of loving behaviors he has demonstrated. We might ask ourselves, “Who is the real man (the cheater or the caring husband)?", Similarly, we might ask, “Who is the real Riley (the delightful, playful child or the mopey, petulant pre-teen runaway)?" Inside Out tells us she is “both.” This answer is obvious to anyone who related to the movie at all, yet it is also disturbing to the part of us that wants a single, unequivocal answer.

The drama between the characters in Riley’s head is somewhat simplified compared to a Jungian vision of a multitude of archetypal characters participating an ongoing Shakespearean epic. There are only 5 internal characters in Inside Out, and the primary action is between just two of them, Joy and Sadness. This simplification can be easily justified because it is a kid’s movie after all. Yet Inside Out offers at least one more challenge to common assumptions by championing the importance of Sadness.

At the beginning of the film, the situation is very safe (Disneyesque if you will). Joy is in charge. The other emotions play a role, but it is Joy’s job to make sure they don’t have too much power. In fact Joy's ideal is that the other emotions be effectively inert; for the most part, the rest of the gang plays along with this assumption. A threat to the status quo emerges of course, but as in most other mainstream kid's movies, we would expect that the Joy-dominated world would reinstate itself in the end.

Inside Out documents a developmental shift in Riley where there is no going back. To be honest (and the movie is honest), the shift from the unreflective blur of childhood to the laborious formation of a stable identity in adolescence is inherently painful. In Riley’s childhood, Sadness was just a rare emotion that Riley would experience for brief moments before the all-powerful Joy would fix things.

What is a bit radical about the end of Inside Out is that Sadness is shown to not just be a part of the self but to sometimes be the right part. There are things to be mourned in life, such as the loss of old friends and of childhood innocence itself. Growth can only come through these difficult experiences, and only Sadness can bring this wisdom to young Riley. This may not be a brand new insight, but it is not one you are likely to find very often in summer blockbusters. Except in Pixar movies of course.

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