WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW. THEY’RE NOT BIG SPOILERS, THOUGH.
Inside Out, the latest from Disney-Pixar, is an adventure into the great depths of the human mind. But it’s not set in the brain; it’s set in a fantasy world that represents the abstract structure of the mind by way of towering architecture and colorful landscaping. It’s an immensely clever concept, and makes for a funny and moving film. But it’s not how the mind actually works at all.
This is obviously true in the literal sense. Real 11-year-old girls don’t have a gleaming control center staffed by five key emotions — Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness, and Joy, with Joy as captain of the ship — managing their moods and behaviors like Inside Out’s protagonist, Riley, does; the brain doesn’t store memories in glowing orbs before consigning them to the bottom of the cavernous Subconscious, where they eventually disintegrate into wisps of gray smoke.
But the components of Riley’s mind don’t work well as metaphors for how real minds operate, either. Here are a few things about the mind that Inside Out gets, well — inside out.
Memory is messier than it’s made out to be
The luminous colorful orbs filling the halls of Riley’s mind are meant to represent her episodic memories — her recollections of specific past events in her life. The way Inside Out portrays it, recall of episodic memory works a lot like playing a video on your iPhone — including two-finger-swipe multi-touch dynamics. If we took this picture literally, you’d think that episodic memories were perfect audiovisual records, available for scrutiny and fine scrubbing whenever they’re needed.
But we know now that episodic memory recall is much, much messier than that. Even everyday recall of past episodes in your life is more like imperfect reconstruction than hi-def playback. In fact, the process is so creative as to become distorting: The more you recall a given memory, the less accurate it becomes. Just calling to mind something that happened to you in the past will change your memory of that event, just a little bit. Those revisions can accumulate over the course of many instances of recall. The more you try to remember, the less you truly remember.
The science of memory distortion is well developed. We know now about myriad terrifying ways in which memory can get messed up:
You can come to think you saw a person in one context when you actually saw her in another. In one notable case in history, a rail ticket agent identified a sailor in a lineup as the person who had physically assaulted him, when really that sailor was just a past customer.
The way you’re asked about what you remember can manipulate the features of the memory itself. If you’re asked to estimate how fast a car was going when it "smashed" into another, you’re likely to "recall" a higher speed than you would if you were asked how fast it was going when it "hit" another car.
Even just imagining what an experience would be like can implant an entirely false memory of that experience in you.
So it’s misleading, to say the least, to represent episodic memories as hi-def records (of things that actually happened) that are crystallized forevermore in discrete capsules. It’s visually stunning, and it makes for easy transportation of Riley’s core memories on the great journey Joy and Sadness take through the depths of her mind.
Of course, there is one way in which memories change in Inside Out: They change their emotional valence, or how they make Riley feel. That’s what happens when Sadness touches Riley’s memories and turns them blue: she’s changing happy memories to sad ones. That’s an important point that the movie gets right, as Columbia psychologist Daphna Shohamy notes: Revisiting a memory in a new context can change your feelings about that past event in your life.
But then, of course, there’s the forgetting. Records don’t just vanish into thin air at the bottom of your subconscious. Sometimes forgetting is a matter of letting a memory record fall into disuse, so much so that the neural pathway to that record gets lost. The wiring of your brain can change so that even if there’s a solid episodic memory of some event hanging out somewhere in there, you can no longer reach it. Here’s a loose analogy: Imagine that you’ve stashed a secret file somewhere in the forest that can be reached by hiking down a trail. If you don’t go to collect that file for a long time, the thicket will take over that pathway, the trail melding indiscriminately into the forest, and you won’t be able to find your way to that file any more. (For the computer nerds: Forgetting can be like losing a pointer instead of scrambling what’s inscribed on the hardware. It’s more like Empty Trash than Secure Empty Trash.)
Some of these issues of confabulation and distortion may well be familiar from the hit podcast Serial. The science of memory plays a huge role in figuring out the truth when eyewitness accounts are at issue. If you want to learn more about memory, you can check out the work of the Schacter Memory Lab, led by Daniel Schacter, the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of psychology at Harvard University. Radiolab also produced a fascinating episode called "Memory and Forgetting" back in 2007.
Who's in control? Not the emotion committee.
The headquarters of Riley's head are staffed by her emotion committee: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. They’re the ones in charge of her control panel. But there's a major character missing: Central Cognition. It's the task of Central Cognition, not the emotions, to survey all incoming perceptual data and determine which actions will promote overall well-being. Sometimes an emotional response can bypass or overpower the commands issuing from Central Cognition's command center, but emotions don't always drive our behavior.
One popular way of conceptualizing the relationship between the emotions and Central Cognition is known as the "dual-process model." According to this model, mental processes fall into one of two categories: System 1 or System 2. To simplify a bit: The actions of the emotion characters of Inside Out all count as System 1 processes, and the processes of Central Cognition are System 2 processes.
System 1 processes are fast, automatic, and happen at a level prior to conscious reflection. System 1 isn't actually a single system; it's composed of many small, largely autonomous local modules that operate in parallel and work away on very specific tasks. So in the land of System 1, you've got a lot of different characters taking in different bits of information and coming to their own conclusions. What Disgust does in Inside Out, for instance, is fast, automatic, and within the domain of System 1. When you recoil in disgust at something gross, that's not because you carefully assessed the elements that made that gross thing so gross. Because this processing occurs at an unconscious level, you might not even understand why that gross thing seems so disgusting.
System 2, on the other hand, is a one-man show starring Central Cognition. The workings of System 2 are slow and deliberate; they unfold within conscious experience. System 2 is centrally located in the prefrontal cortex, in working memory and executive control centers. When you find yourself making a complicated decision, weighing different factors, and considering different strategies, you're relying on System 2 reasoning.
When it comes to behavior production, which is in charge: System 1 or System 2? Well, neither. There’s no default hierarchy here — sometimes Central Cognition wins out, sometimes the emotions driving System 1 win out. Their outputs are always competing with one another. Sometimes, after making lots of decisions, Central Cognition can get tired, and it becomes more likely that your emotional responses will win out. Other times you don’t even bother using Central Cognition, even when it’s not tired — you just let System 1 drive.
What you end up doing is less the result of proclamations of some orderly headquarters and more the result of a massive, disorderly scrum. It's helpful to think of the competition for behavior production like an election. Different brain processes elect different candidates, and as the primaries move along, different coalitions form around the most electable candidates. Ultimately, the candidate with the most powerful backers wins the election and gets promoted.
You might think at the very least that there's collaboration between the System 1 processes, and that they form a unified front against System 2. But there's not just competition between System 1 and System 2 processes, there's also competition among the various System 1 processes. For instance, your fear response can compete against your anger response. You may really want to punch that bully in the face, but you're afraid of what the consequences will be (a punch in your face).
This points to something else that Inside Out gets wrong: a collaborative (if sometimes contentious) emotions committee with Joy as chairwoman. Sometimes your emotional responses can align behind a single response. But when this happens, it's not because the mastermind behind that response was in charge from the start.
So the battle between potential responses is not like a spunky conversation between players in a command room. It’s much more chaotic and competitive—yes, even more chaotic and competitive than when the emotions elbow each other out on the console.
And who’s in charge? Not Joy. In this competitive environment, Fear is often the most powerful combatant. Humans are much more motivated by the fear of loss than by the anticipation of gain. As the tennis star Jimmy Connors famously said, "I hate to lose more than I love to win." So maybe Fear should have had 33 seconds alone with Riley at the start of the film instead of Joy. Think about it: Does the wail of a newborn sound like unadulterated bliss, or the sheer terror of ejection into a potentially hostile world?
When Joy leaves headquarters, Anger, Fear, and Disgust try to fill her shoes, asking, "What would Joy do?" In reality, with Joy out of the picture, the other emotions would rejoice: less competition!
For the full story about dual-process theory, check out the Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Personality is not fueled by core memories
According to Inside Out, we become who we are when we have formative experiences. Those formative experiences produce core memories that power key aspects of our personality. So Riley's memory of scoring her first hockey goal powers her love of the sport.
Though we may often point to specific moments in our lives as particularly important in shaping who we are, it's misleading to suggest that memory plays an important role in constructing our personality. Notice that those with amnesia don't necessarily become radically different people upon losing connection with large swaths of episodic memory. Their sense of humor remains the same, they still like the same kinds of movies — they just can't remember past episodes of experience.
In fact, events that happen in our lives have remarkably little impact on our personalities. Twin studies suggest that personality traits are mostly fixed by genetics. In one extraordinary case, two twins, separated at birth, met years later only to discover that they were remarkably similar. Sure, they had similar fashion taste and shared a dislike for math. But they also both enjoyed far more unique "pursuits," like sneezing when in the company of strangers and dipping their toast in coffee. Some traits, it seems, we’re destined to have. Take the same person, expose them to different environments and different experiences, and, more likely than not, they'll come out with roughly the same desires and traits.
You might have a hard time believing this, and for good reason. Humans are really great storytellers, and we're especially good at narrativizing our own lives. We have a tendency to look back on our lives and try to make sense of who we are with reference to our experiences. But there's evidence that this is more confabulation than fact. You may think you decided to become a biologist because of that one amazing biology teacher you had in seventh grade. But it’s more likely that you just had a knack for biology and that you’d have found a reason to become a biologist one way or another.
Inside Out is great filmmaking. But it’s not great metaphysics.
And this is leaving out other potential issues with the movie. Most obviously: There aren’t, in fact, homunculi in our heads powering our actions and reactions. There’s no part of the mind — from an emotion to a memory manager — that should properly be understood as a little person with a mind of its own. But the movie deserves suspension of disbelief on this point.
We also haven’t addressed the movie’s utter disregard for the physiological (or "James-Lange") theory of emotion, which states that our physiology — the actual physical stuff happening in our bodies — causes our experienced emotions, rather than the other way around. That theory has it that the falling of tears makes you sad, rather than sadness making you cry. The question of whether the James-Lange theory is true is highly controversial — for that matter, it’s controversial whether our subjective experiences cause anything at all.
Inside Out is a lot of fun, at points laugh-out-loud funny, and, in true Pixar fashion, very poignant at its conclusion. But it’s a poor reflection of what we know about the mind.
Antonia Peacocke and Jackson Kernion are PhD students in philosophy at the University of California Berkeley.