Draycen D. DeCator

Doctoral Candidate

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Movie Review: Inside Out


My wife and I went to view Disney Pixar's new movie, Inside Out, this afternoon. As someone in the field of clinical child psychology, I was eager to see how well the movie portrays emotions and different cognitive processes. And, after having watched the movie, I'm very impressed! Here, I want to give my impressions of the movie, and highlight some aspects that really stood out to me.

(Disclaimer: I don't plan to spoil the storyline in this review, but if you have not seen the movie and read this review then you will get a sense of what types of things are portrayed. If you worry that will spoil the movie for you, then I suggest you see the movie before continuing to read.)

Emotions

As the stars of Inside Out, emotions are definitely the most obvious thing to talk about, but also one of the most well-done aspects of the movie! Many sites have reported that Pixar worked closely with some psychologists to help make sure their portrayals of different things (such as emotions) were accurate, and that collaboration definitely shows.

In the movie, viewers are exposed to five different emotions: joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger. From very early on in the movie, there is a great message that comes across very clearly: in our heads, we can have multiple emotions competing with one another, and that is okay! Ultimately, depending on the situation and our natural dispositions (portrayed informally in the movie as an emotion that tends to "take charge" over the others), we can switch between them fluidly. 

From my experience working with kids so far, one of the most challenging things for them to become comfortable with is understanding, labeling, and acknowledging which emotions they are feeling in a moment. This movie, by highlighting that we rarely have only one emotion at a time, may help kids to understand this complexity and to be better able to say "well, I'm mostly feeling A, but a little bit of B and C as well."

To make the point even clearer, the movie also does another clever thing: the emotion characters tend to have emotions themselves. Sure, they have predominant views and ways of looking at things, but they express different feelings which shows that even the "pure" emotions aren't entirely pure and simple.

Another great aspect was the portrayal of emotions being able to "color" or alter our way of remembering things. The memory itself doesn't change, but the emotion "in charge" while we're remembering can cause us to focus on different aspects of the memory, and thus elicit different emotional responses.

These points all become even clearer towards the end of the movie, but I don't want to give away too much. The key take-away for the emotional component of the movie is that the movie demonstrates how every experience includes a mix of emotions, we function best by accepting all of our emotions and finding a way for them to work together in harmony, and every emotion is useful in some way (even if we may think they aren't).

Memory

Another interesting component of the movie that was less obviously going to be included is memory. As I mentioned above, the movie portrayed how emotions can influence the memories we bring up and how we view them. However, more mechanical pieces of memory were included as well.

Short-term memory is stored in one location, and they are transferred to long-term memory during sleep while REM is occurring. Long-term memories fade over time and are "dumped" (i.e., forgotten), though some memories never fade and remain clear over long periods of time (including memories that might not even be important). 

One aspect that was a little odd to me was the idea of key memories. The movie portrays personality as being built on key memories, but to me it's less clear that personality has a 1:1 connection with memories in that way. Experiences certainly build up and lead to our personalities developing in specific ways, and I think that was the piece the movie was trying to portray, but it stuck out to me a little bit as an area that could have been elaborated on a little better.

Thinking/rationalizing

Another part of the movie that was relatively small, but has huge potential to be a good illustration for reference in therapy, is how thinking/rationalizing was portrayed. It wasn't perfect, though I don't think they intended for it to be since it was more of a background component.

Some ideas are portrayed as light bulbs, and the different emotions play a role in deciding which ones they think are good. The key piece to focus on is that the emotion provides the thought, but ultimately the person has a choice whether or not to accept that thought. ("Accept" may not be the best way to phrase the situation, as it suggests the alternative is rejection, and trying to reject thoughts isn't the most beneficial tactic, but that is the term used in the movie). By portraying that the person is ultimately in control of deciding whether or not to listen to the ideas suggested by the emotion, we can work with kids to help them realize that they also don't need to take on every thought that an emotion prompts.

For example, the main situation I am thinking of are cases of severe sadness. Even if the emotion may bring up some ideas (e.g., "I'm no good"), the child has the ability to acknowledge the thought but ultimately realize it isn't true. As a result, there is a clear and useful message: our emotions help to guide us and influence our actions, but they do not have the final say on what we think or do. To me, this fits in well with our narrative of the "thinking/reasonable/rational mind" vs. the "emotional mind."

Final thoughts

There are still many other small things that were great about the movie (such as the portrayal of depression being a lack of emotion instead of just extreme sadness), but going into more detail would cause me to spoil the movie! The real magic of the movie is its ability to portray complex mental processes in an easy-to-understand, humorous, non-technical way that people of all ages will be able to understand, and that's something you need to see in order to appreciate.

Ultimately, I was very impressed with the movie and look forward to owning a copy once it is released. Just like Frozen offered us ways to talk with kids about how they can "let it go," Inside Out will likely be a terrific tool going forward for clinicians. 

Disney's Pixar set out to portray emotions and other mental processes accurately, and (in my opinion) they certainly succeeded.

Have you seen the movie? Let me know your thoughts in the comments! (Though, please, don't spoil the story too much for those who haven't seen it yet!)