Why ‘Inside Out’ is kind of interesting


Metaphors are powerful tools. Similes are like tools. And tools are — well, tools are just tools. Now, of the three statements just made, only the last (‘tools are tools’) is truly indisputable. And yet for many people it will be the least interesting, the least compelling. Such is the power of metaphor. Metaphors are smart.

Inside Out — the Pixar movie that everyone’s raving about — takes the metaphor gun and blows the audience’s brains out with it. But does that mean it’s as smart as everyone says it is?

People certainly are raving about this movie. It has been praised for encapsulating elaborate philosophy with heretofore unattained clarity. It has been lauded for providing a framework for children and adults to better understand mental health and illness. It has even been credited with helping previously unreachable autistic kids communicate their emotions to therapeutic effect. And it has a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. You’ll probably want to go see it.

Across a series of reviews, The Guardian described it as “high IQ family entertainment“, “a metaphysical mouldbreaker“, and “a crash course in PhD philosophy.” One of its reviewers was the prominent British philosopher Julian Baggini, who completed a (real) PhD in the relevant subject matter, as well as a well received book. He thought Inside Out “succeeds brilliantly” at being among the best children’s movies, and “reflects some of the most important truths about what it means to be an individual person.”

Baggini’s review attaches particular merit to the way the movie depicts Riley’s “self” as comprising the sum of different and competing impulses, rather than a single autobiographical inner monologue. He also really likes the way the movie shows the various parts of a person’s selfhood to be impermanent and shifting, and the importance of memory for gluing everything together. As he describes it, our self is the end-product of many ongoing processes, with nothing permanent at its core.

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From the perspective of contemporary scientific psychology, this is all fair enough. But is it really that astounding? Inside Out uses as its paradigm some well established psychological perspectives on consciousness. Its success is in bringing these to a new audience — and in explaining them in ways that (even?) children can comprehend. But in my view the content itself is just not that profound.

In fact, the content has many imperfections. For example, the whole storyline implies that our emotions are (a) finite in number, and (b) separately functioning impulses that jockey for influence over our thoughts and motivation. In reality, emotions are far more confused and are not so easily disentangled. This is shown in the movie itself when the various emotion characters themselves feel mixtures of different feelings: sometimes Joy experiences sadness and fear, at other times Fear exhibits joy, and throughout Sadness expresses, if not quite joy, then at least intermittent satisfaction or happiness. Individual emotions cannot and do not function or exist in isolation. And it is misleading to suggest that we have just five (or so) of them. Instead, our thought processes are permanently addled by a hotchpotch of multidimensional and often ambiguous emotionality.

Some questions might help explain the point. Firstly, how might the Inside Out model explain negative emotions such as shame? How might it explain emotions that are partly negative and partly positive, such as schadenfreude? Secondly, are there not several different types of every single emotion (for example, different types of happiness)? And thirdly, straight from Philosophy 101, if Riley has all these little characters (the philosophical term is ‘homunculi‘) running the show inside her mind, then who is running the show inside the minds of each of these little characters? Do they have a team of homunculi inside their minds too? And if they do, then who is running things inside the minds of these homunculi? More homunculi? You can see where such a metaphor is limited. It isn’t.

The contribution of Inside Out is not its explanation of the mechanics of the human psychological self. This explanation — involving competing emotional impulses, ephemeral islands of identity, and the nuances of memory storage and retrieval — combines a number of different theories from mainstream academic psychology. Many of these theories are decades if not centuries old, and some are hampered by unresolved shortcomings. Nope, the really groundbreaking impact of Inside Out is the very fact that audiences get to see any of these ideas portrayed on-screen at all.

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It is something of a sad commentary on the profile of academic psychology that its theories can seem so awe-inspiring to movie audiences. When psychologists use a series of mechanical metaphors to depict what goes on inside your head, they are ignored. When Pixar do it, they are heralded as geniuses.

Now I’m not saying this because I’m jealous of Inside Out and feel that psychology should get more credit. Actually, that’s the opposite of what I feel. I’m saying this because I worry that people might eventually notice where these theories come from and then draw false conclusions about psychology. They might conclude that it is psychologists who are imaginative geniuses and that they deserve, I don’t know, maybe Oscars.

In many ways, Inside Out is a terrific movie and I’m sure it will continue to get many many accolades. However, the praise should be for its imagery, story-telling, dialogue, sentimentality, conciseness, clarity, and suspense. We shouldn’t simply assume that a structured effort to explain or depict human cognition marks a movie out as some kind of intellectual landmark of culture.

Being comfortable citing concepts from academic psychology — in other words, talking like a psychologist — is not synonymous with having a “high IQ”.

Take my word for it. I know a lot of psychologists.

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One Comment

  1. A brilliantly visualized concept anchors Inside Out in a way that ensures it will resonate for years to come. Kudos to Pixar for again reminding us that animated entertainment can appeal to all ages and speak to universal truths.

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