Science Of Sadness And Joy: 'Inside Out' Gets Childhood Emotions Right

Jun 13, 2015
Originally published on June 15, 2015 2:26 pm

Hollywood's version of science often asks us to believe that dinosaurs can be cloned from ancient DNA (they can't), or that the next ice age could develop in just a few days (it couldn't).

But Pixar's film Inside Out is an animated fantasy that remains remarkably true to what scientists have learned about the mind, emotion and memory.

The film is about an 11-year-old girl named Riley who moves from her happy home in Minnesota to the West Coast, where she has no friends and pizza is made with broccoli. Much of the film is spent inside Riley's mind, which features a control center manned by five personified emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust.

"I think they really nailed it," says Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley who worked as a consultant to the filmmakers.

The movie does a really good job of portraying what it's like to be 11, Keltner says. "It zeroes in on one of the most poignant times in an individual's life, which is the transition to the preteen and early teen years, where kids — and, I think, in particular girls — start to really powerfully feel the loss of childhood," he says.

As the filmmakers were working, they would fire off emails to Keltner and to Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of emotions. The process helped create a movie that's true to the underlying science when it shows things like how emotions tend to color Riley's perception of the world.

"When you are in a fearful state, everything is imbued with threat and uncertainty and peril," Keltner says. And when Riley is sad, he says, even her happy memories take on a bluish hue.

The filmmakers get a lot of other scientific details right. Inside Riley's head, you see memories get locked in during sleep, experiences transformed into abstractions, and guards protecting the subconscious.

There are a few departures from the scientific norm. Long-term memories are portrayed as immutable snow globes, though scientists know these memories actually tend to change over time. And Riley gets five basic emotions instead of the six often described in textbooks. ("Surprise," apparently, didn't make the cut.)

Also disgust is present in a pretty mild form — the reaction a child has to eating broccoli. The film plays down a more powerful version of disgust, "like if you suddenly eat a piece of food and it has a worm in it, or it's rotting, Keltner says.

One of the film's high points, though, is its depiction of sadness, Keltner says. In many books and movies for kids, he says, sadness is dismissed as a negative emotion with no important role.

In Inside Out, star-shaped Joy gets more screen time. But when the emotions are in danger of getting lost in the endless corridors of long-term memory, it is Sadness, downcast and shaped like a blue teardrop, who emerges as an unlikely heroine.

For kids, Keltner says, that makes "a nice statement about how important sadness is to our understanding of who we are."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The animated film, "Inside Out," opens next week, and it introduces a viewer to some of the emotions that run around inside our minds. It was made by a team that includes both artists and brain scientists. We sent our own team to an early screening, NPR's science correspondent Jon Hamilton and arts correspondent Neda Ulaby. They begin their report right outside the movie theater.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: What did you think about the visualization?

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: They did a nice job of not trying to be too literal about, like, where we are in the brain. It was not an anatomy lesson.

ULABY: Jon's beat is brain science. This is Neda; I cover arts. And I asked the movie's director to tell me what was the hardest thing about visualizing something so internal.

PETE DOCTER: Probably everything.

ULABY: Pete Docter is a well-known Pixar name. He directed "WALL-E," "Monsters Inc." and "Up," which featured the voice of his daughter, who was 10 years old at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "UP")

ELIE: (As Ellie) Oh, there's something down there. I will bring it back for science.

DOCTER: She was a really spirited, energetic little kid. And then, as she got to be 11, she was a little more quiet and kind of, you know, laid-back. And so I sort of thought, man, what's going on inside of her head? And I wanted to kind of capture that sense of what it is to lose childhood. And when that passes on, it's gone forever.

ULABY: When it came to representing the workings of a child's changing brain, Pete Docter and Pixar's artists came up with a central image, a control tower, manned by five emotions - fear, sadness, anger, disgust and the leader, joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INSIDE OUT")

AMY POEHLER: (As Joy) First day of school - very, very exciting. I was up late last night figuring out a new plan. Here it is.

DOCTER: We started by just representing them as shapes, you know. So Joy just feels, kind of, outwardly, like an explosion. And so she's like a star in her shape, and she spends a lot of times with her arms and legs stretched out and...

ULABY: And talking to herself about Riley, the little girl whose mind she inhabits.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVE, "INSIDE OUT")

POEHLER: (As Joy) Joy. Yes, Joy? You'll be charge of the console - keeping Riley happy all day long. And may I add, I love your dress, it's adorable? Oh, this old thing? Thank you so much. I love the way twirls.

DOCTER: Anger just felt confined, like a brick. Like he's a square.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INSIDE OUT")

LEWIS BLACK: (As Anger) Oh, sure. We'll eat our dinner right after you eat this.

DOCTER: Fear is kind of like a raw nerd. He's just like this angular guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INSIDE OUT")

BILL HADER: (As Fear, yelling).

DOCTER: Disgust was sort of based on broccoli in her shape and color. And Sadness was kind of like a teardrop. Her hair is almost like a waterfall coming down.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INSIDE OUT")

PHYLLIS SMITH: (As Sadness) I'm too sad to walk. Just give me a few.

ULABY: Its' an emotional roller coaster as the young girl moves to a strange new city and starts at a strange new school. During all of the turmoil, Joy and Sadness get lost, deep in Riley's head, where she can't always reach them.

HAMILTON: And that can actually happen. Certain emotions just get buried for a while, says Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

DACHER KELTNER: I think they really nailed it.

HAMILTON: Keltner studies emotions. He also worked as a consultant to the Pixar team as they were making "Inside Out." Keltner says the movie does a really good job of portraying what it's like to be 11.

KELTNER: It zeroes in on a - one of the most poignant times in an individual's life, which is the transition to the pre-teen and early teen years, where kids - and I think in particular, girls - start to really, powerfully feel the loss of childhood.

HAMILTON: As the filmmakers were working, they would fire off emails to Keltner and to Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of emotions. Keltner says the process helped create a movie that's true to the underlying science when it chose how emotions tend to color Riley's perception of the world.

KELTNER: When you are in a fearful state, everything is imbued with threat and uncertainty and peril.

HAMILTON: And the filmmakers get a lot of other scientific details right. Inside Riley's head, you see memories get locked in during sleep, experiences transformed into abstractions and guards protecting the subconscious. There are a few departures from the scientific norm. Riley gets five basic emotions instead of the six often described in textbooks - surprise didn't make the cut. And at least one emotion comes off as a bit wimpy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INSIDE OUT")

POEHLER: (As Joy) This is Disgust. She basically keeps Riley from being poisoned, physically and socially.

MINDY KALING: (As Disgust) That is not brightly colored or shaped like a dinosaur. Hold on, guys, it's broccoli.

KAITLYN DIAS: (As Riley) Yucky.

HAMILTON: Keltner says broccoli-induced yucky is a form of disgust, but so is revulsion.

KELTNER: Like, if you suddenly eat a piece of food and it has a worm in it or its rotting, it's just blah!

HAMILTON: The psychologist thinks one of the film's high points is its depiction of sadness. In this scene, Sadness and Joy are trying to find their way back from the dark recesses of the mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INSIDE OUT")

SMITH: (As Sadness) Wait, Joy, you could get lost in there.

POEHLER: (As Joy) Think positive.

SMITH: (As Sadness) OK. I'm positive you will get lost in there. That's long term memory, an endless warren of corridors and shelves; I read about it in the manuals.

POEHLER: (As Joy) The manuals?

HAMILTON: The manuals are a roadmap to the mind. Joy didn't read them, but Sadness did. And for Keltner, the scene reflects a scientific truth; negative emotions can help us survive.

KELTNER: There is a literature on how sadness makes us see things wisely. And, the fact that Sadness remembers those manuals of how the mind works - I think it's a nice statement about how important sadness is to our understanding of who we are.

HAMILTON: Keltner says parents who see "Inside Out" may find it easier to understand and accept the emotions of their children. And he thinks kids who see it may look at their emotions in a different way.

ULABY: That was true for one young moviegoer who saw a preview screening of the film.

JAKE: I didn't really exactly think about sadness being really helpful. In the movie, Sadness actually saved all their lives.

ULABY: Full disclosure - that was your son, Jake, who's 9.

HAMILTON: It was.

ULABY: And, he got it.

HAMILTON: He did. He got the science and the story.

ULABY: Art and science - they can work together. I'm Neda Ulaby.

HAMILTON: And I'm Jon Hamilton.

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