Monsters & Critics / Dr. Gail Gross

Childhood Development Expert Digs Deeper Into Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’

July 1, 2015


Parents can count on the Pixar animation film “Inside Out” to be an original, heartfelt story about the process of growing up and learning how to handle your biggest emotions.

The film is shot from the POV of 11-year-old Riley’s (Kaitlyn Dias) mind. Baby Riley is born to her loving parents, so is her first emotion, Joy (Amy Poehler), who’s soon joined by Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). The quintet live and work in Headquarters (aka HQ), the part of Riley’s brain that experiences feelings and makes memories.Then everything changes when Riley and her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) move from Minnesota to San Francisco after her dad lands a new job. As Riley copes with all the “new” … a house, school, and her parents’ increased stress, things get out of control back at HQ: Sadness and Joy are at loggerheads with Riley’s core memories and end up getting sucked into long-term storage. Can they make it back to HQ in time to help Riley get back in touch with all of her feelings? It’s a volatile, nostalgic and heartfelt ride.

The plot has many tense moments where Riley’s fears are also on display, including a scary clown. Parents should know there are plenty of tear-inducing heart-tugging moments, but the important messages about needing to feel and properly express all of your emotions -whether happy or sad – is the underscore of the film.

Most elementary schoolers will get the subtle messaging but younger kids may need a bit more explanation about what’s going on, since there are references to abstract thought and the subconscious, and it can be a little confusing when other characters’ emotions are shown.

We asked Monsters and Critics’ contributor Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., Ed.D., M.Ed., a nationally recognized family and child development expert, author, and educator, some key questions parents might have about this “emotional” film.

Of “Inside Out” as a learning experience for parents, Dr. Gross says, “The mind is the new frontier and the more we understand about ourselves as a species, the better we can learn how to live with ourselves and one another in peace and harmony.”

gail gross

Monsters and Critics: In the film there are five basic emotions: joy, anger, sadness, fear and disgust. They trade off to man a “control center” that guides a person’s actions, but in a default state, Joy is the leader. Is it a common belief that there are five basic emotions in psychology?

Dr. Gail Gross: Yes, but it’s more complicated in that they are the building block emotions, and from those emotions, many, many more emotions evolve. For example, you might take anticipation, add to it joy and come out with optimism. According to Robert Plutchik, who created a wheel of emotions similar to a color wheel, you can see how the basic emotions of joy, sadness, trust, disgust, fear, anger, surprise and anticipation can be mixed and matched to create many, many emotions of which the human is capable of feeling.

M&C: Do people have different default emotions, or are some just naturally happy?

Dr. Gross: No one is naturally happy. We are complex organisms with complicated emotional systems, and there are genetic conditions, for example, when a person may not experience joy.

M&C: As children grow, complex emotions that mix the five into different combinations emerge. How important are complex emotions to a healthy development?

Dr. Gross: Emotions, in a sense, govern our lives. They are complex and often mixed. We can experience more than one emotion simultaneously, and in fact, it is often difficult to separate out what sparks a particular emotion at a particular time. Whether it was Aristotle or Darwin or psychologist Paul Eckman, we know that there are complex variations of our emotions that have developed over time to biologically help us survive. As a result, we can see our emotions through our facial expressions, and in fact, according to Eckman we have more than seven thousand different facial expressions.

M&C: Is there really a place in the brain where we house our scary thoughts?

Dr. Gross: The frontal cortex and the hippocampus operate in complex systems, so it’s not one location or particular place. Instead, we have a brain-wide process.

M&C: There is a creative explanation for teen angst and mood swings when Joy and Sadness accidentally are locked out of the control center, but what’s the actual science behind it?

Dr. Gross: The actual science behind the adolescent emotional experience is biological, as well as environmental and has everything to do with chemistry. To understand our emotions, we have to look towards the amygdala where our flight and fight system originates. When under stress, either physical or emotional, the amygdala increases in size and, in a sense, takes over captaining our mental ship. Normally, that role is assigned to the pre-frontal cortex… our executive function- and impulse control. The hippocampus, where memory and learning live, temporarily narrows, which effects the way we think, the way we process information and most important, the way we react. Because the brain is not finished developing until the end of adolescence, it is particularly vulnerable to stress, a big part of adolescence. So when an adolescent is impacted by biological and hormonal chemical changes that are occurring in his body, you can understand why he is more danger-oriented and emotional, in general. Adolescence, according to Freud, is a time of angst and strum, with the emotional fluctuations of highs and lows.

M&C: The film notes that short-term memories are made each day and converted into long-term memories overnight. And when those memories are remembered, they can be re-associated with new emotions and changed forever. Can we trust our memories to be accurate?

Dr. Gross: This is a misunderstanding of how the brain stores memory. Our short term and long term memories are stored and encoded in many ways, in many different parts of the brain. The brain works like an orchestra and the plasticity of the brain allows it to reorganize itself and rewire itself daily. Repetition will strengthen connections and those are the memories that we keep. That’s the person who practices the violin over and over and becomes a good violinist, for example. On the other hand, what we remember is what we focus on, and because the brain is very efficient, it will dump the memories that are not focused on or used. Basically, the brain encodes, consolidates and retrieves information that is focused on and stimulated by feelings. The brain is highly efficient and it will dump what’s not used.

Memory is not a thing, but a process… a group of systems, each playing a different role that work together to create a cohesive thought. So, a single thought is really a complex construction.

How we deal with this is that the brain captures, like a movie, a tremendous amount of information that we are unaware of and the connections that are not used become wispy. As a result, the brain is so efficient and it will discard what is not used over time. If we tried to assemble all disparate memory impressions, we wouldn’t be functional.

M&C: Are there such things as core memories and how do they shape your personality?

Dr. Gross: There is no single memory that we live with. Our life is filled with memories that we are accumulating every second of every day. Memories that relate to behaviors and environment that are consistent and sustained over time, track in our brains. For example, language, bonding, abuse, lessons, etc. In other words, things that we repeat or are consistent and sustained will be the memories that effect our behavior.

M&C: Can personalities change over time, or is a person shaped from their core memories that are collected as a child? When does that personality-forming period stop?

The personality develops through both genetics and environment, and the highly stimulated experiences that are attached to events, are what children will remember.

Who you are to be, you are becoming. Human beings are fluid organisms and can learn something even at the time of death. However, that being said, early bonding inoculates a child by creating good self-esteem and security which impacts the way he perceives events. In the final analysis, we are a biological combination of environment and genetics.

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