Above: Image © istockphoto.com/GrashAlex

With the release of ”Inside Out”, brain science is at the forefront of everyone’s minds (pun intended!). If you haven’t yet watched the movie, I highly recommend it. It focuses on a young teen named Riley and the emotions she experiences after she and her parents move from Minneapolis to San Francisco. As a brain researcher, I find the film paints a beautiful picture of emotional development. It also reflects the true complexity of human thought, feelings, and behaviour.

Did you know? In 1972, psychologist Paul Ekman wrote that all human beings share six basic emotions: fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness and sadness. Today, many psychologists and neuroscientists find this list too short.For the most part, the action takes place In Riley’s brain, which is called “headquarters”. This space is home to the film’s five animated characters. Each of them corresponds to a different emotion: Joy, Disgust, Anger, Fear, and Sadness. The personalities of these five entertaining characters span the range of emotions that humans experience in real life. “Inside Out” tells the story of how these emotions mature as Riley struggles with the move to a new city.

Riley’s emotions give competing opinions on how to handle the situations she encounters. This reflects her brain’s emotional instability. In fact, the brain is particularly unstable during the teenage years. This is because it doesn’t finish developing until you are in your early 20s. Until then, it remains very impressionable. For example, learning to play a musical instrument or learning to use a touch-screen device is much easier when you are young. It is also easier for young brains to form new connections between different brain regions. The most important thing to remember is that your brain is constantly changing in light of your experiences.

Riley’s memories are coloured by her emotions. She sees them through the eyes of whichever character voices the most convincing opinion on a particular situation. Brain scientists generally agree that people rely on their memories to deal with sometimes difficult situations. In this way, they continually create new memories and update existing ones. The movie provides a good example of this. When Riley moves away from her familiar surroundings, she reflects on her past memories with sadness. The character Sadness feels a strong need to change Riley’s memories from joyful to sad. So emotions influence memories and your experiences. Got it?

Did you know? Most psychologists and neuroscientists agree that there are three main aspects of human emotion: a subjective experience or stimulus that leads to a physiological response, and ultimately results in a behaviour.An experience can change a memory and ultimately change how you behave. Sadness’s need to alter Riley’s memories is driven by the fact that Riley has moved to a new city. When Sadness changes Riley’s memories, she changes the context in which Riley remembers her past experiences. This leads to a cascade of events that ultimately breaks down Riley’s personality traits. These traits are represented by personality “islands” in her brain. This breakdown is similar to the effect of a traumatic memory. For example, if you experienced a house fire, you might become more wary of using candles indoors. An experience can change a memory and ultimately change how you behave.

If you are a teenager, don’t worry about your sad experiences erasing all the personality traits that make you an individual. Feeling a range of emotions can be a good thing. During adolescence, your developing brain experiences many new emotions, feelings, and thoughts that shape your developing personality. As your personality matures in this way, it becomes uniquely yours.

At the end of the movie, the characters realize that they are not distinct or separate from one another. In fact, they can work together to create memories with unique emotional contexts. In reality, as you reflect on memories and create new ones, you are constantly experiencing “mixed emotions”. These are times when you feel both surprised and horrified, angry and sad, or even sad and happy. In the film, Joy is the emotion that dominated Riley’s early years. But Joy comes to recognize that for Riley to be truly happy, she also needs to know what it means to feel sad.

Did you know? Negative experiences, like traumatic injuries or bullying, can cause permanent changes in you brain and even lead to mental illness. By contrast, positive experiences can actually improve your cognition and brain health.This realization is shaped by Riley’s experience. She is upset by the move and decides to head back to Minneapolis to be happy again. Instead of acknowledging that sadness may simply be a part of life, she tries to prevent any bad feelings by seeking out familiar things that have brought her joy in the past. However, once she leaves, Riley remembers what she is leaving behind: her family. At this point, Riley (and her emotions) realize that accepting her sadness can help her cope with the move. This leads her to conclude that being sad from time to time is okay. By maturing emotionally, she changes how she will react to similar hardships in the future. In this way, Riley’s emotional development ultimately shapes her personality.

“Inside Out” is a rich depiction of the developing teenage brain. Through the story of a young girl’s emotional hardship, it reflects on how managing your emotions and developing your personality can be difficult. The movie is filled with references to concepts taken from psychology and neuroscience. For example, “train of thought” is an expression first coined in 1651. “Long-term memory” is a theory widely used in neuroscience since it was first developed in 1968. The importance of sleep for memory storage and general brain health are also addressed in the film.

The movie follows the development of Riley’s emotions from simple feelings independent of one another to complex feelings that are created by mixed emotions. In doing so, the film reveals just how important it is to feel and to understand your feelings. And it does so in a way that is easier to understand and more entertaining than a textbook or a classroom lecture!

Learn more!

Other CurioCity articles on issues related to brain health:

Soil microbes that improve your mood (2015)
Shawna Hiley, CurioCity by Let’s Talk Science

The Power of Positivity (2012)
Jenny Kliever, CurioCity by Let’s Talk Science

Video of Ontario brain researchers discussing topics such as harassment, snacking and exercise, substance abuse, and eating disorders:

The Research Behind Mental Health Symposium (2015)
CurioCity by Let’s Talk Science/Partners in Research

Websites providing general introductions to the different theories of emotion:

Comparing the 5 Theories of Emotion (2014)
Beppe Micallef-Trigona, BrainBlogger

Theories of Emotion
Kendra Cherry, About Education

Scientific articles on the nature and management of emotions:

Cultivating positive emotions to optimize health and well-being (2000)
Barbara L. Fredrickson, Prevention & Treatment 3
Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to access full text.

An argument for basic emotions (1992)
Paul Ekman, Cognition & Emotion 6
Link to abstract and excerpt. Registration or subscription required to access full text.

Bryan Jenkins

Bryan Jenkins works as a Fellow with the CurioCity team. He is an academically trained neuroscientist, and has interests that span across a wide range of scientific topics. His past research has examined the role that molecular and cellular systems have in learning, memory, and sensory abilities. The communication of scientific discoveries through outreach and education initiatives is something that he is very passionate about. In his spare time he likes to read, write, and play his guitar.

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