The Inside Out of Memories

I never really thought of my emotions as characters inside my head before. Sounds kind of scary, doesn’t it? Yet Pixar’s latest movie “Inside Out” provides a nearly perfect characterization of the role of emotions in our lives, as well as how those emotions color our memories —memories that are tucked away in various corners of our mind (or perhaps neatly on rows and rows of shelves?) until we later grab them for reference or security, or share them in stories that shed light into our past and decisions we made. Yep, the essence of personal history.

“Inside Out” is a story about a child’s mind, with each of five emotions animated as a separate character. And as Pixar has a way of doing, it captures some of the basic thought processes and characters of our everyday life so precisely that it makes you wonder if the scriptwriters hadn’t been secretly following you all these years and listening closely to your thoughts.

Joy, exuberant and bouncy (and a bit bossy), tries to control each of 11-year-old Riley’s memories to ensure that her  “core” memories— protected in a glass enclosed case — are happy. Joy tries to shield them from Sadness and to keep Anger, Disgust and Fear away from the control board — unless they are absolutely necessary.  And sometimes they are, as two psychology professors who advised the scriptwriters noted in the New York Times recently: “[T]he truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation. For example, studies find that when we are angry we are acutely attuned to what is unfair, which helps animate actions that remedy injustice.”

Meanwhile, workers store and sort hundreds and hundreds of memories on row upon row of shelves in Riley’s mind, choosing which ones can be dumped (“Phone numbers? Nah, Riley doesn’t need those. They’re all in her phone!”). These shelves of memories are separate from the “core” memories that Joy feels she must protect because they are vital to Riley’s future and psychological wellbeing. Joy’s work becomes harder, however, when Riley’s parents uproot her from her childhood home in Minnesota and move her to San Francisco. As if middle school isn’t hard enough, right?

Eventually Joy learns each emotion serves a purpose, and it’s even okay that emotions color our memories. “Scientific studies find that our current emotions shape what we remember of the past. This is a vital function of Sadness in the film: It guides Riley to recognize the changes she is going through and what she has lost, which sets the stage for her to develop new facets of her identity,” the psychologists state.

And, as the movie portrays, the daughter isn’t the only one with these emotions who vie for control of the mind; adults have them too. We carry them through adulthood, as Pixar shows each taking turns at the control board of mom’s and dad’s minds — always one emotion in charge yet all sitting at the control board. All the emotions have aged along with the adult and each surely still colors the memories.

Many of the reviews of the movie support the psychological elements. According to a Business Insider review, American University psychologist Nathaniel Herr recounted the movie’s portrayal of Riley recalling missing the winning goal during a championship hockey game as causing her great sadness, yet she later recalls her teammates rallying around her to cheer her up. “Herr says this flip-flopping happens all the time in the real world. We remember certain events through the lens of our current emotions. When we’re sad, the memory of a family road trip might just remind us of a stuffy car. When we’re happy, we remember the adventures.

“Being able to recognize that our memories aren’t just simply good or bad, but have different sides to them, is a way people cope with their complicated lives,” Herr says.

And Herr somewhat supports the idea of “core memories” that a person holds close — much like Joy in the movie. But he doesn’t consider them necessarily key to a person’s personality — they may instead just be treasured memories someone holds close.

What I have yet to see anyone write about is how the movie portrays with enthusiasm the pure excitement of sharing memories, whether they are colored by Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust or Fear. Those memories, along with their emotions, help shape our lives, often guide our decisions, and make us who we are today. We often rely on them as we choose our next path or form new relationships. And they are the building blocks of vital stories to be passed on to children and loved ones, perhaps to stack on their own memory shelves to later be enjoyed or perhaps referenced as they choose their own paths in life. If written down, a personal history detailing these memories can be treasured for generations.

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