The majority of the action in Inside Out takes place within the head of an 11-year-old girl named Riley during the time of her family moving from her hometown in Minnesota to San Francisco because of her father’s work. It is arguable whether this then makes the main protagonist(s) of the film Riley herself, or the personifications of her emotions we see inside her head reacting to the world around Riley and controlling her actions.
The majority of what I have seen written about the film focuses on the origin of these personifications (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear) in the six universal emotions from the work of Paul Eckman (1971). The emotion not included, surprise or shock, could be said to have been included in Fear due to how he (re)acts in certain situations. I mention this as one emotion that was considered, but not included in the results of Eckman’s study was ‘contempt’, which is overtly included in the film as part of the role of Disgust.
Dr Janina Scarlet (2015) has written one of the more insightful psychological reviews of Inside Out I have seen praises how Pixar are able to explain complex psychological ideas and constructs in ways that are understandable even to the very young. This is certainly true; the film’s set of the idea of ‘core memories’ and the ‘islands of personality’ they are responsible felt immediately comprehendible as I watched the film with very little exposition needed. I also enjoyed the nods to the biological, with the long corridors of ‘long term memory’ looking like the folds of the cortex when they are shown on screen, as well as the representation of other psychological concepts, like imagination, dreaming and abstract thought.
As we get deeper into this it when we begin to find, what I feel, is the therapeutic value of the film. I really wish I could go into thorough detail about all the benefit, insight and understanding viewers get to gain from watching the film, but I know that to do so would be at the expense of really big spoilers due to how it is tied to the narrative of the film. I will write some here, so be warned spoilers lie ahead, but as little as I can.
A major part of the early character building is of Joy trying to minimise the impact that Sadness has on Riley’s life. However, the above marks a turning point where she begins to value the role that Sadness has. Much of the journey of the film, the “drama” if you will, is due to the denial of sadness. Once S/sadness is allowed and Riley/we can mourn what has been lost, that is when she/we can move into something new. In the film, following this, Riley is able to integrate her emotions, and this is seen in the mixing of the emotional personifications’ influences on her experiences and memories. Much like in real life, we slowly learn to experience multiple emotions at one. The catharsis of crying about something is one that I think most people can recognise.
This, I feel, is also reflective of the therapeutic relationship. Some of the best work in therapy comes not from giving people tools on how to avoid feeling sad, angry, or any host of things that can be seen as negative, but actually in bearing witness to those very things. By sitting with someone and acknowledging how very painful this experience must have been for them, they begin to permit that for themselves. Rather than push the experience away from themselves, they are able to make it part of their life and themselves. From this they are then able to move forward, rather being stuck in battle.
All in all I heartily recommend the film, both from an entertainment point of view and a professional one. Edutainment at its finest.
Achor, S. (2011). The happy secret to better work. http://bit.ly/1ITyVoj
Ekman, P.; Friesen, W.V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 17: 124–129. http://bit.ly/1hFS8Rl
Scarlet, J. (2015).”Inside out”: Emotional truths by way of Pixar. Beyond Heroes and Villains. Part of Psychology Today.http://bit.ly/1MrKANp