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Pixar’s Inside Out gets it Right-side Up!


By Corine Carlisle, Clinical Head, Youth Addiction and Concurrent Disorders Service

“Do you ever look at someone and wonder what is going on inside their head?”

I do.

In fact, you could say that as a psychiatrist it is my job to wonder what is going on in people’s heads!

So when Pixar’s new movie release, Inside Out opened with this question, I was hooked and also a little cautious.  How was an animated movie going to navigate this delicate and intricate subject?

*Before we move any further, let me issue a spoiler alert. If you haven’t seen Pixar’s film Inside Out, this blog will contain story spoilers, so tread carefully (or watch the film first!).*

If you search out the movie reviews, you will learn that Inside Out is touted to be Pixar’s return to imaginative and technical glory.  It is the playful and clever story of 11 year-old Riley whose perfect life is thrown into disarray when her family moves across country from Minnesota to San Francisco.  Riley must leave all that is familiar and comfortable to face the new and foreign west where not even the pizza can provide comfort since it is ruined by broccoli!  The real action of the movie, however, occurs in Riley’s mind where her personified emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust attempt to keep control of the ‘command center’ and navigate emotional upheaval.

The film resonates as accurate and true, as confirmed by the surreptitious dabbing of eyes in the movie theatre.  To understand its truth, we could go into the theoretical underpinnings of the movie – Robert Plutchik’s psychoevolutionary theory of emotion or other theoretical frameworks – but for me, the truth comes from two key concepts that I think Inside Out gets absolutely right-side up: empathy and resilience.

The inner workings of Riley’s mind are characterized as a massive neuro-industrial complex with Riley’s memories captured as glowing orbs – each colored for its emotion – golden yellow for joy, blue for sadness, red for anger, white for fear and green for disgust. Memories are moved by Jetson-like transport tubes into the vast hallways of long-term memory where rows upon rows of orbs shine with their respective colors. But Riley’s key memories, the memories that define and shape her, are kept in central command where they power her ‘islands of personality’ – Hockey Island, Friendship Island, Family Island and Goofball Island. These make Riley the friendly, family-connected, hockey playing quirky-sense-of-humor girl that she is.

Joy is indefatigably optimistic. Her mission is to keep Sadness at bay. In fact, at one point Joy draws a chalk circle on the ground and instructs Sadness to stay inside the circle! Joy is so determined that Sadness will not touch any of Riley’s core memories (and turn them blue forever) that she and Sadness get accidentally jettisoned out of central command into the far reaches of Riley’s mind. They must find their way back to central command but not before navigating long-term memory, imagination, dreamland and abstract thought.

Along the way, Joy and Sadness meet Bing Bong, Riley’s forgotten imaginary friend. Joy’s cheerleading attempts to motivate Bing Bong utterly fail. But then Sadness sits with Bing Bong and, to Joy’s shock and horror, she encourages him to express his sadness. In no time at all, Bing Bong has rebounded and is ready to keep on going.  Joy is at first completely perplexed by this phenomenon and then she gets it! Empathy! Empathy is what connects us. And these connections give us strength to endure and overcome the hard things in life. Knowing that someone else understands our sadness makes the sadness more tolerable.  Having others by our side gives us support and strength to get through the hard times.

But Joy’s revelation about empathy comes too late to save the islands of personality and one-by-one the islands crumble and fall away. When it seems that all is lost, and Joy will disappear forever in the dumping ground of forgotten memories, Bing Bong powers one last flight of imagination to get Joy back to central command where she allows sadness to ‘take the controls’, reconnecting Riley to her family.

What was the state of the neuro-industrial complex of Riley’s mind after this cataclysmic emotional turmoil?  Well, very few of the memory orbs were just one colour any more. Each orb was now a mixture of yellow and blue with tinges of red, white and green in some. The old hockey, friend, family and goofball islands of personality were gone but elements from each of them were incorporated in to a larger, more complex island powered by the new multi-colored key memories. This is resilience – complex and nuanced emotions that allow us to be complex and nuanced individuals less likely to ‘crash’ when life throws us the inevitable curve balls.

This is what I hope for and work towards with all my patients, both young and old: that they have rich emotional lives; that sadness is not put inside a ‘chalk circle’; that joy is not lost to the ‘dumping ground’ of memory; that they are connected to the people they care about and who care about them; and especially that they have imagination and hope to power them through the hard times.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I like the writing here. But not the story as told.. There are already too many myths and fictional accounts which have been accepted by citizens about serious mental illnesses (SMI). Responsible scientific researchers have found strong evidence that the root cause of SMI is likely prions like those known to cause Mad Cow Disease.,

    Yet prions are the stuff of a revolutionary science–a science that might lead to cures for some of humanities most destructive diseases like Parkinson’s, ALS and Alzheimer’s. We hope this info will create an informed public who will demand scientific research to be funded appropriately. And those of us families who have loved and lost beloved schizophrenic offspring to suicide desperately want to see the scientific facts about these diseases brought to the public.

    A reading of” Fatal Flaws: How a Misfolded Protein Baffled Scientists and Changed the Way we Look at the Brain” by science writer Jay Ingram . It is a good anecdote after you are entertained by this movie…


    October 8, 2015
  2. Really enjoyed getting your perspective on this interesting movie. Thanks for the read!

    October 8, 2015
  3. Corine Carlisle #

    June, thank you so much for your comment. You are correct. The science is indeed so vitally important! Science is critical to the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and to our striving to continually improve care. The movie ‘Inside Out’ doesn’t focus on this aspect of the work we do but I agree 100% – the best care is evidence-based, best practice informed and is provided in the right setting at the right time. 11 year-old Riley in the movie does not have a clinical disorder; in fact, I have read that the movie’s director, Pete Docter, made that a conscious decision. What I really appreciate about the movie ‘Inside Out’ is that it is experiential and it provides a visual way to connect to our experiences and the experiences of others. As we utilize the current best science and strive to advance it, we cannot lose touch with the humanness of our endeavor to provide the best possible care. To your point exactly, we must listen to our patients as well as continue to push forward the boundaries of our knowledge and understanding.

    October 8, 2015

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