Movie Midterms is a series of reviews evaluating the science portrayed in film. I will review the accuracy of the science in pertinent flicks (obviously no Lord of the Rings-type stuff) and ask experts in the field what the movies got right. At the end I’ll give each film a grade on its “midterm!”
On the tails of last week’s Send Silence Packing exhibit and subsequent discussions of mental health, perhaps Inside Out is a timely way to start a review series. Pixar’s latest return to form, Inside Out follows an 11-year-old girl named Riley and the five emotions who live in her head: Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Anger (Louis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). Riley and her family are in the midst of an emotionally turbulent move from Minnesota to San Francisco, and this causes so much conflict among the emotions that Joy and Sadness eventually get lost in Riley’s mind.
Obviously, no film can represent a technical field with absolute accuracy. Sometimes you just have to cheat on science with the cruel, alluring mistress that is plot. For example, psychologist and emotions expert Paul Ekman, who consulted on the film, says that there is actually a sixth core emotion: surprise. However, surprise would also be too similar a character to Fear such that both characters would be less effective.
There’s also the question of scientific consensus. Do most psychologists agree with Ekman’s model of emotion? Psychologist Steve Miller says that Ekman has a pretty large following, but other models are gaining traction as well, especially dimensional models or spectra of emotions rather than categorical models.
“One of the things about the movie is that emotions are portrayed as these discrete entities that are running around driving the show,” Miller said. “There’s been a little bit of backlash about that particular aspect.”
Miller is a psychology professor at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago who studies both anxiety and emotional disorders and statistical models in psychology. He admits the psychology in the film isn’t perfect, but he had some good things to say about it as well, particularly about a theory by researchers Norbert Schwarz and Gerald Clore.
“An early version of the theory called it the cognitive tuning theory,” Miller said. “Your emotions provide you with some information that you use to make judgements, and I feel like even Sadness provided information to the protagonist. I feel like there was some portrayal that was current with psychological theory.”
One unrealistic element of the story is the giant pit of lost memories, the movie’s closest thing to an antagonist. Toward the end of the film, a character (no spoilers) gets trapped in the pit and evaporates, lost from Riley’s memory forever. Miller says that barring trauma or brain damage, we don’t tend to lose our memories forever (save from very early childhood), but what the film does get right is how our current emotional state influences our past memories. For example, Riley recalls living in Minnesota when introducing herself to her new classmates, but the character Sadness touches the memory and changes it from joyful to sad.
“We don’t have a perfect record in our head of everything that’s ever happened to us, and when you ask us to recall something, we’re not bringing up a snapshot or a recording of what happened, we’re actually doing a bit of recreation with our minds,” Miller said. “The mental state that you’re in at the present moment is used in some of the recreation of events in the past.”
Finally, I also have to give director Pete Docter props for doing his research, especially for a family film. Not putting forth effort because “it’s for kids” is a pretty lame excuse, but unfortunately also a common one (cough Minions cough). Still, I wouldn't recommend using Inside Out as a study guide for your Intro to Psych midterm.