Inside Out: The Highs And The Lows

I just watched Inside Out for the first time. It’s brilliant, easily my favourite Pixar film to date, up there with Toy Story 3 and WALL-E (although I’m yet to see Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo, I’m a bit slow on the uptake). What a fantastic way to represent the inner workings of the human mind and brain, inspired. And what a great way to remind us that our emotions are a crucial part of our identity and form who we are. However, because I like to over-analyse things there are a few bits about it that I find a little concerning. So what follows is a brief review of the highs and lows.

High: Our Emotions Matter! Have you ever met one of those uptight people who are convinced emotions are the enemy – the sort of person who worships economics and thinks feeling should be expunged from the human condition. The sort of person who tells us that we should be as rational as possible and act like cost-benefit maximising automatons, thinking always what’s best for us in an objective and compassionless manner. Well, despite a mountain load of scientific evidence to the contrary now Pixar is on the case, showing us quite how wrong economists can be. I’ll let one of the scientists who advised on the film hammer home this point: “…emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations. But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.”

Low: Memories Are Not Objects. The film depicts memories as little multi-sensory orbs that display the events of the memory like a film. Each orb is coloured with the predominant feeling of that memory, e.g. yellow for happy, blue for sad etc. However, one current theory is that memories are not equivalent to discrete objects stored in our head – e.g. a neuron per memory – but are actually engrams – unique and distributed series of neurons that correspond to multiple-facets of that memory (e.g. the visuals, the sounds, the feelings). So, rather than an orb, imagine that a memory isn’t a single item but a series of neuronal connections throughout the body. This will include the different sections and layers of the brain (of which there are many) and our internal/external organs (which are also connected via neurons to our brain/central nervous system). In other words, it takes the whole body and the world beyond to make a memory (but trying to represent this as a visually satisfying metaphor in a kid’s film was probably not Pixar’s aim).

High: Sadness Is Important. Spoiler alert. At the end of the film the emotion Joy (one of those irritating types who tries to look on the positive side of everything…everything) comes to realise that Sadness (one of those irritating types who tries to look on the negative side of everything…everything) is vital to a healthy, emotional lifestyle. Sadness is crucial in helping us deal with the difficulties of the world – the loss we may experience when moving home or, indeed, the loss we may feel when we lose a loved one. Whilst it’s seemingly easy to pretend everything is ‘fine’, the tougher thing might be to admit it’s not. But by being vulnerable and being sad we make it more likely that we will heal and be supported in the process.

Low: The Brain Is Actually Organic. It’s fascinating that the brains behind Inside Out chose to represent the brain as a hi-tech HQ full of fancy equipment and flashing buttons resting above an arid desert. Even Riley’s ‘memory islands’, places that represent core facets of her identity such as the Family Island and the Goofball Island, are just uninhabited theme parks full of statues and machines. Now, it’s a great metaphor and it’s brilliant when key emotions Joy and Sadness get lost in Riley’s mind but it’s worth stating that the brain is an organ in our body and like all other organs it’s organic. It’s full of blood, veins and gooey grey stuff, and forms a vital element of our body’s ecology. It is by no means artificial or ‘unnatural’. So perhaps a more true metaphor would be something more ecological – ‘memory forests’ instead of built-environment memory islands that can grow greater diversity but are also prone to fires and being cut down. My concern here is that Pixar’s representation of the brain as mechanical could only arise in a time when humans are rapidly trying to distance themselves from their biological nature. But, at heart and head, we are animals, just animals with a profound capacity for intelligence and stupidity.

So, highs and lows aside, Inside Out is a fantastic film that reminds us our emotions form a vital part of who we are and how we understand the world. But the vivid nature of these emotions should surely also remind us of our animal and biological nature, one prone to great highs and great lows, rather than imply we’re just walking, talking machines.

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