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Education Observations Reflection

A Review of Inside Out by Pixar.

Like others, I saw the Pixar film Inside Out and I, too, recommend it. Drs. Keltner and Ekman[1. Paul Ekman is the guy who studies the expressions of emotions on faces and their universality.], the psychologists who provided consultation to Pixar about the film, were incisive about the point of the story:

“Inside Out” offers a new approach to sadness. Its central insight: Embrace sadness, let it unfold, engage patiently with a preteen’s emotional struggles. Sadness will clarify what has been lost (childhood) and move the family toward what is to be gained: the foundations of new identities, for children and parents alike.

The film demonstrated in colorful and delightful ways how emotions interact with each other; how memories are created, moved, and stored (the marble imagery was both beautiful and fun); and how emotions, thoughts, and behaviors can interact with each other. Parents may wish to bring tissue; all the adults around me (and me, too) audibly cried at least once during the movie.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, please note that the rest of this post has spoilers in it. You have been warned.

Some other observations of the film:

Like others, I didn’t like how Sadness was portrayed in the film. I do not protest that she was the color blue; I do wish she wasn’t portrayed as lumpy, lazy, and lethargic. (At several points in the film, Joy literally drags Sadness around.) While sadness can make us feel listless and inert, sadness often motivates us to take action. Sadness is ultimately redeemed in the film: The family becomes and feel more connected because of the introspection and action Sadness fosters. However, I don’t think Sadness should have been thrown under the bus in the first place.

It is also noteworthy that Sadness is portrayed as female. One wonders if Sadness would have been portrayed as lumpy, lazy, and lethargic if the character were male. Is this social commentary on the perceived “moodiness” of women?[2. Just to be clear, I do not equate “moodiness” to “depression”. Others sometimes do.]

Of course, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The “leader” of the emotions in the mother’s head is Sadness (looking sharp in a business suit, no less!). This choice may have been a foreshadowing device: The mother demonstrates skillful parenting in the film, which hints at the organizing power of sadness. This again suggests that sadness has value and helps us connect with others in meaningful ways, as parents or not.

The film uses the model that thoughts occur as a consequence of emotions. Emotions come “first”. Champions of cognitive therapy[3. Related: Cognitive behavioral therapy may be losing its effectiveness over time. One complaint many people have had about CBT is that the process can feel invalidating: “So… you’re just saying that I think the ‘wrong’ things. If I only thought the ‘right’ things, then I wouldn’t feel this way. So you’re saying it’s all my fault. Thanks a lot, jerk.”] would disagree with this: They would argue that thoughts always precede emotions, even when we have no idea why we feel the way we do.

This is one of many hypotheses about our internal experiences. Other models concur with the film’s assertions that emotions have primacy; our behaviors and thoughts can be consequences of what we feel. I believe that they are ultimately all related and each can have primacy, depending on the circumstances.[4. This isn’t entirely related to the primacy of thoughts, but someone, who I now can’t remember, said something pithy like, “Who are you between your thoughts?”]

There are delightful visual puns in the movie. One that I thought could use elaboration was the “train of thought”. The train in the film didn’t serve much purpose other than as a literal means of transportation for the emotions. Pursuing more meaning in the train may have derailed the film, so I understand why the train of thought was left as a train. It, however, might have been an opportunity to explicitly describe the interactions between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

I do recommend the film to adults and children alike. It offers a refreshing counterpoint to the messages we usually get from society about sadness (e.g., feeling sad means that there’s something wrong with you; you should try to avoid feeling sad as much as possible; etc.). When we embrace those emotions we often want to avoid, we learn more about ourselves, what steps we can take next, and the value of our internal lives. Pixar does an excellent job of teaching us these lessons in a fun and colorful way.


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