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7 scientific findings that support Pixar’s Inside Out

in Editor Pick/Film & TV Psychology by

When I was attending a lecture in psychology on Sensation and Perception, the lecturer described a story in amazement where a student said to him ‘what’s this got to do with psychology?’. Sensation and perception, the lecturer explained, was the very heart of how we understand and interact with the world around us.

The lecturer was right but missed the irony that this student had misperceived his material on perception.

This isn’t uncommon in psychology classes. Students walk in with dreams of Freud, inkblot and word association tests, and also the hope of understanding themselves.

Instead, they sit through countless lessons on statistics and listen to lots of different and seemingly loosely connected topics on personality, social psychology, sensation and perception, developmental psychology and so on.

What’s missing is what ties all the disconnected threads together. Some call it a theory. I think of it as more of a story.

Inside Out is a story that essentially integrates and explains the seemingly disparate pieces discussed in dry lectures. The film shows how these pieces come together using the metaphor of characters inside a young girl’s head, called Riley, representing the little girl’s emotions.

Here are seven clever and important psychological mechanisms that Inside Out nails.

Emotion helps formulate memories

Research shows that emotion helps us retain and recall memories. In Inside Out, the characters in the little girl’s head work to guide her through life but their ultimate output at the end of the day is memory formation.

Forcing yourself to be happy will make you miserable

My favourite depiction of emotion was ‘Joy’, a character who obsessed with suppressing another character, called ‘Sadness’. The harder she tried to prevent Sadness from generating memories, the more Sadness seemed to influence the memories and mood of Riley. This aligns with research that shows that suppressing emotions can simply make us more miserable.

Distance in time changes our perception of events

A powerful scene in Inside Out shows Riley recollecting a past, happy experience but suddenly feels a twinge of sadness as the character in her head, Sadness, contaminates the memory. Of course, it isn’t really contaminated. Riley is experiencing nostalgia, which is an emotion that connects us with meaning in the past and is associated with feelings of sadness.

Emotional diversity and complexity promotes resilience

Experiencing a wide range of emotions helps us adapt, according to studies. Riley’s character development was represented as forming more complex memories and emotions, which supports this research. This is different from many characters in films who are perceived as successful when they overcome, rather than embrace, ‘negative’ emotions.

Sadness triggers social support

According to functional views of emotion, sadness is believed to help trigger social support. When Riley finally accepts the emotion of sadness, she not only forms more complex memories but this emotion triggers support and love from her parents, which helps her cope.

Sadness helps you plan and improve

When we get an insight into the mind of Riley’s mother, some interesting foreshadowing is revealed. In contrast to Riley, the character in her head representing sadness has control, instead of joy. We realise that the character, Sadness, serves an important function. She helps Riley’s mother navigate, plan, and respond, which aligns with research that shows that mild dejection activates the region of the brain that helps us plan.

This makes sense given that after failing to fulfill our goals and dreams, we feel flat, which can help us re calibrate and change our approach.

Memories form our identity

Research shows that when we access experiential memory–where we store our most meaningful memories–we are more engaged. In Inside Out, Riley struggles for much of the film to recall and lean on her identity when she experiences agitation. This is consistent with research that shows that anxiety reduces access to this part of the brain.

Through metaphor, I was impressed how the writers of this film where able to engage me the way many University lecturers failed. In a strange way, the individuals who work at Pixar seem to instinctively express and communicate their knowledge of psychology more than individuals who devote themselves to analysing them. This includes me. I’m envious but also in awe.

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