„Inside Out”, secrets of your brain REVEALED

The film „Inside Out” approaches many complex subjects in the field of neuroscience and communicates them in a simplified way, easier to understand by the public at large. Beyond the animation for kids, the film has many things to reveal to adults. (Just like fairy tales which, by symbols, meanings, ideas can challenge the mind, the heart and even the soul of adults.)

The way the emotions of the girl are presented is very suggestive. The girl is confronted with the most serious situation of her life since then: the relocation of her family to San Francisco (where everything is new or, in any case, change is involved).

The way memories are presented and dealt with is also very interesting. There are similar to some spheres or “small globes”, having the color of the emotion generating them but which, according to the context they are reminded, can change color. Because they can be „summoned” at the “control center” for this purpose. Daily memories reach the Center as they happen and are stored there for a short time. Each night, when the girl falls asleep, her memories are sent from the Center to the “long-term storage place”, lines of shelves (like the ones in a huge library with many passages and …colors). They are extracted by a sort of a “vacuum device”.

The small workers in the brain, represented as some indefinite shapes, check them from time to time, and the ones which have lost brightness are „deactivated” and sent away. These look like some grey, colorless “globes”, as compared to the vivid memories; so, they are sent to the central abyss, where they fade away gradually and finally turn into dust. The small workers of long-term memory, sometimes send to the Center in the girl*s mind the annoying memory/replay of an ad for chewing gum, which repeatedly unreels itself, the girl being unable to resist it.


What is the “Control Center”?

The Center seems to be rather a representation of the limbic system (system of the brain that deals with emotions), than the location of the conscious state (which, according to recent research, is connected to many areas of the brain, not having a fixed location).

The difference between the girl of the brain (in the film) and our brain: the prefrontal cortex. All over the movie, Riley seems a puppet of her own emotions. If Anger presses a button, she screams at her friend; if Joy presses a button, she smiles and tries to encourage her mother; if Sadness touches her memories, she frowns and moves away from her dear ones. Practically, she is the subject of an uncontrollable behavior for which emotions are completely in charge. The brain, though, does not operate this way. The prefrontal cortex allows us to decide how to handle the emotions we experience. It is an area of the brain which allows us to be in charge, to find solutions and to be “the executive director” of the decision in the context of an emotional event.

Our behavior is influenced by emotions AND thinking, which, in turn, are affected by the way we behave.

Psychologists name the inter-dependence among thoughts, emotions and behaviors “the cognitive triangle”.

When we feel a certain emotion, be it generated by a situation or a biological process, we can control and adjust it, by thinking and behaving (acting) CONTRARY to that condition. Or instinct.


The Control Center (headquarters): the hippocampus and memory

The limbic system comprises the hippocampus, which is essential for the formation of episodic memories. These memories offer details about what, when, where. As one can notice all over the movie, each time the girl experiences something, a “small globe” registering that event is transmitted/conveyed to the Center[The focus of the researchers is currently to decode the mechanisms which allow the hippocampus to create these complex memories.]

The Hippocampus/Center does not store such (episodic) memories forever. Once created, an episodic memory can be „deleted” or sent, for consolidation/reinforcement, to other areas of the brain in the neocortex. The consolidation represents the process which creates a long-term memory.

Sleeping is very important in this respect.

The Hippocampus is considered to play an important part in reactivating episodic memories. In the film, Emotions can “summon” memories at the Center from the long-term-storing-place and project them on a screen. Memories unreel/unwind the same way a film does, reach the conscious level – so she becomes aware of them, and can influence her choices. Or, as is the case of the annoying ad, can make her hum the jingle. Elenaor Maguire -University College London, considers the hippocampus similar to the machine we can use to travel through time and space. Even if in the film this is not explicitly presented, there is also the possibility of the projection in the future, such as when fear is involved, potential problems and situations are considered and solutions found.


Do memories have „the color of the emotions”?

The Hippocampus seems to be involve din the emotional aspect of a memory, but emotion is connected to many areas of the brain. No matter where the specific emotion is being adjusted, the whole limbic system plays an essential part, particularly in the association of an emotion to a memory. A recent study of MIT showed that it is possible to modulate the emotional context of a memory in mice, by  stimulating some neurons in the hippocampus and the amygdala. First, the researchers proved they can add a fear component to an episodic memory, harmless until then. More recently, the same group was able to activate positive memories and reduce depressive behaviors. In the film, if an emotion touches a memory, the memory takes over the particular emotional context, which is obvious with Sadness: if it touches pleasant memories, it can “bring them to tears”.

Long-term memory and forgetting

All around the central abyss and the Centre, there is an immense area of shelves which “host” memories, represented as spheres, “small globes”. This is the long-term memory storage place.

The film captures the degradation of a long-term memory by its fading, in color as well as in brightness. The small workers come and check their condition. If they are too “dim” or if they consider some useless, they “evacuate” those into the abyss. Forgetting is a process difficult to study. There are several theories, some of them opposite, sand it is possible that each of them has its own share of truth.


There are two main theories, however: cue-dependent forgetting and trace decay theory (teoria “stergerii urmei”).

As concerns the former, if there is no clue associated to a memory, you cannot remember or „reactivate” the event just by thinking. But if someone mentions something that happened then, offering you a clue, your memory activates itself. It was not forgotten, just more difficult to access. As concerns the latter theory, the memory cannot be „traced” (gets lost), through degradation and is lost forever. The process is necessary for memories that would be useless, but it can also occur with memories you would like to keep. Causes: the degradation and loss of connection among neurons.

In the film, the latter is prevalent: old memories, once they get into the abyss are lost forever. But there is also a hint at the cue-dependent forgetting: by singing childhood songs (=clues) with the imaginary friend of the girl, Joy saves herself from the abyss and, at the same tine with her, are also saved the happy memories she holds in her hand :).


The globes of memoriesare real?

As the story unfolds, this representation is acceptable. But, in the brain, it is not that simple with…. memories. A complete memory, especially an episodic one, involves several neurons from different areas of the brain, acting in a coordinated manner.

Once formed, other elements can be added to a memory. In the film, this is suggested by the change of colour of a small globe when touched by a different emotion. The hippocampus differentiates memories based on the emotional context when they were experienced. Then, it associates similar memories together, depending on the place they appear in a context, the type of emotion and, at last, with similar objects. The areas of the brain with complex executive roles, address and differentiate emotions mainly through abstract elements, such as the value of an experience.


Dreams in the movie vs. the process of dreaming

In the film, dreams are “produced” like in a film studio, with a production director, a scriptwriter/playwright, actors and even a make-up team. The happening and events of the day do influence dreams, which can be seen in the film, but the process of dreaming is little known. The hippocampus “replays” the process through which the specific scenes/sequences of a neural activity happen, but much faster than „in real time”. this also happens when we are awake and helps us plan activities. The replay” during sleep is essential for learning and is also involved in the consolidation of memories.


DISCOVER: Emotions from a different perspective

Images: Disney, Pixar

Inspired by Blake Porter, Ph.D in Psychology, B.A.with Honors in Neuroscience

Read also about: „Inside Out” and psychology

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