More Than a Feeling: The Science Behind the Emotions of 'Inside Out'

More Than a Feeling: The Science Behind the Emotions of 'Inside Out'

Pixar filmmakers take their research seriously. For Cars, this meant a nine-day road trip along Route 66. A visit to Scotland provided inspiration for Brave. And with the latest Pixar release, Inside Out, which opens June 19, director Pete Docter and his team exhaustively studied a different kind of landscape: the mind of an 11-year-old girl.

To better understand the constantly changing emotional world of Riley, the movie’s tween protagonist, they consulted with scientists, neurologists and psychologists. And from this foundation they built a family film with a funny, sweet and poignant take on growing up as seen from both inside and outside the main character. And while kids will enjoy it, it may be moms and dads who benefit most from this sneak peek into the adolescent mind.

“The movie shows how emotions collaborate to help us navigate really complicated parts of life like moving, losing a friend, going to a new school,” says Dr. Dacher Keltner, co-director of the Greater Good Science Center, and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley who was consulted on the film. “The way that Inside Out grapples with Riley’s feelings of loss and how her family ultimately surrounds her in that experience is really powerful.”

While Riley navigates the outside world when she moves from the Midwest to San Francisco with her parents, her emotions, which have a life of their own, struggle to keep up and keep her happy. They take center stage, and literally glow with their own personalities. Part of the fun and angst of the film comes from seeing what happens when each of these emotions gets to take charge in Headquarters, the control center in Riley’s mind and “steer the ship.”

“It’s all about the emotions—they’re running the show,” says Docter. “We can control how we act, but we don’t get to choose how we feel.”

Docter and his team consulted with Keltner and other experts to determine how many emotions to feature in the movie. Docter said that although some researchers identify up to 27 human emotions, they settled on five feelings to turn into fully charged characters (a few that didn’t make the list include: surprise, hope, pride and, wait for it …ennui).

There’s Jov, voiced exuberantly by Amy Poehler, and Sadness, with Phyllis Smith of The Office at her mopey best. Bill Hader hits the panic button perfectly as Fear, while Mindy Kaling exudes scorn as Disgust and Lewis Black boils as the explosive Anger.

“We didn’t just want them to be little people. We wanted them to look the way our emotions feel to us,” Docter said. “One thing that informed the design was that each of the emotions had jobs. They had roles to fulfill and went in and worked together.”

Since Docter and his team are the same guys who created the movie Up, I expected this film to have its touching moments, and I brought tissues just in case. They were needed, especially in the spots where we witness Riley shedding precious early childhood memories (sad but true, most kids barely remember anythiung that happened before the age of 5) and losing interest in the things she once loved. This movie reminds us that growing up can be hard on both kids and parents.

“While all parents want their kids to go out into the world—I’m happy for my kids and want nothing more than where they are right now—it’s bittersweet and a little sad when childhood passes by,” says Docter. “That’s a key element to this film.”

The movie also conveys that as much as we want our kids to have joy in their lives, we have to let them experience sadness too, no matter how it pains us. Even Keltner, who has been studying emotions for more than 25 years and teaches courses about the science of happiness, said Inside Out  proved instructive for him as a dad to two teenage daughters. His takeaways for dealing with tween angst: give kids space, be accepting, don’t try to argue them out of their emotions and yes, be ready for some sadness.

Above all, remember that things change and it’s important to roll with it.

“Don’t take it all too seriously. They’re on the brink of becoming teenagers and you will be convinced that they are not going to grow up into reasonable human beings. But they probably will. We all go through this stuff.”


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