Pixar’s hit summer film – Inside Out – is all about loss. That means it’s also all about attachment, even though the term doesn’t feature anywhere in the film.
As I sat watching the film in my 3-D glasses, I wondered how much training the writers or directors had received in brain function, cognitive theory, or developmental psychology. The film is packed full of scientific information. Yet, relatively few published reviews have commented on this scientific base, and none of the interview clips with writers and directors seem to discuss the links.
So in this article I thought it would be fun to highlight some of the scientific knowledge that underpins the film’s philosophical reflections. This allows the film to become more than entertainment. It becomes an aide-memoir for us adults, as to how we can nurture secure attachment in our children, while also better meeting our own emotional needs.
1. Why these particular five emotions?
The film features five emotions as living in the control centre of 11-year-old Riley’s mind: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Why were those particular emotions chosen?
The film is based on the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, whose seminal research studying facial expressions, begun in the 1970s, has charted universal human emotions. His investigations reveal that there are seven basic human emotions: those featured in the film, plus surprise and contempt.
Certainly there are other ways to conceive of emotions. For example, Robert Plutchik has created an elegant ‘wheel’ model, based on eight basic emotions. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, known for her work on bereavement, narrowed it down to two: love and fear. All these theorists argue that our more complex human emotions ultimately boil down to just a few basic ones.
It doesn’t really matter which framework is ‘correct’. What matters is that the film offers us a practical way of looking upon our emotions. It gives us perspective — a tool for making sense of what is happening inside our chattering heads and bodies. If you want a sane life, that external perspective is essential. You need to be able to stand a bit outside your emotions, so that you don’t get swamped by them. Emotions flood through our brains continually throughout the day, and they feel all too real to us in the moment
Swamping is exactly what will have happened in the tragic road rage incident recently reported in the UK news. Donald Locke, a 79-year-old beloved grandfather, was stabbed to death by 34-year-old Matthew Daley, over a minor road traffic incident. Terrible, life-long loss has descended on a family because a stranger was caught up in a flood of emotion he could not control. If we proclaim, “Well, he just should have tried harder!”, then we fail to understand what the science of attachment is telling us. Acknowledging Daley’s emotional state doesn’t condone what he did. Rather, it forces us to think more deeply about the biological drivers of behaviour.
What Pixar has done is give us a way to engage more actively with the emotions that so often take control of our minds:
- give them names;
- make them seem funny if you can, so that they aren’t so scary;
- start watching to see which one of them usually wins your internal battles.
Health professionals these days call this process ‘mindfulness’. Psychologists call it ‘monitoring emotional regulatory processes’. We, the public, might call it ‘relief’ – once we master the technique.
Its all too easy to get caught up in a wee flood of emotion. There’s a scene in the film when Riley’s dad ‘puts his foot down’ and punishes her for an angry outburst. Since Joy and Sadness weren’t around to help her at that point, Anger had taken over her mind’s control centre, and he was doing his best to help. What Riley needed in that moment was her Dad’s concern, even if she wasn’t able to communicate that need very well. But because Dad was so overwhelmed by his own feelings of frustration, he was unable to see hers.
I imagine that every parent watching the film feels their heart sink with recognition when it gets to that scene. It isn’t only our children who are subject to emotional floods.
2. Why is it Joy and Sadness who end up journeying together?
In Plutchik’s conception of emotions, with its eight basic categories organized into a wheel, emotions come in pairs. Within each pair, the two emotions are regarded as counters to one another. Joy and sadness are one of Plutchik’s pairs.
The other pairs are: disgust and trust; fear and anger; surprise and anticipation. Heavens, what a mess emotions are! The film makes that mess seem somehow comprehensible, even while the five characters argue endlessly over who will be in charge of Riley’s mind. Imagine the pandemonium had the directors decided to expand to include all eight of Plutchik’s categories!
So why are Joy and Sadness the two pals who end up on the adventurous road trip through Riley’s brain? Is it because the writers want to remind us, similarly to Plutchik, just how bonded these two contrasting emotions are? In order to know joy, we humans must also know sorrow. This is an uncomfortable truth to swallow, because sadness feels so hard for us humans to bear.
The poets have perhaps done a better job than the scientists in getting us to recognise the synchrony of these two emotions. Albert Camus, for example, put it metaphorically:
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
Kahlil Gibran expressed it more directly:
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.…The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
There are, these days, a number of speakers delivering high profile TED Talks who are trying to convey this same message, such as Emma Gibbs on heartbreak and Tracy McMillan on ‘marrying yourself’. One of the best known is the lecture by Professor Brene Brown. Her message is that in order to live a full and joyous life, we have to stay in touch with our vulnerability. The problem is that vulnerability opens us up to sorrow. Living consciously with vulnerability takes strength and courage.
Pixar, then, is the latest in a stream of contributors trying to find a way to guide us through an age-old human dilemma. This not just a story about a child; it is a story about our species.
3. Why is it Sadness who saves the day?
At the heart of the film is a drama of loss. Riley’s family has moved, and she is struggling to adjust, missing her friends and life back home. The film hinges on the question of how Riley will handle this loss. Might she go as far as running away, abandoning her parents and destroying their happiness as a family?
The character of Joy tries diligently to find a solution to this emergency. She is determined to keep Riley in touch with all her happy memories.
But Joy fails. She cannot save the day. It is Sadness who saves the day.
This is the process of attachment in action! Riley needs help. She cannot resolve her dilemma on her own. She is deeply unhappy and she needs her parents to help her deal with that. But telling them carries a risk. What if she disappoints them, because she is no longer their happy-go-lucky daughter? What if they turn away from her truth, because they can’t bear to accept that their actions have caused her sadness? What if they diminish her pain, because it seems silly to them? What if they feel helpless in the face of it?
Sadness is not meant to be carried alone. Human sadness is heavy. It prompts a flood of hormones that drain you of joy. That’s why sadness is meant to be shared. It becomes bearable once someone helps you with it, once you are not alone with it, once someone is willing to sit down in the sadness with you. Brene Brown’s animated short film on empathy beautifully depicts the power of such companionship.
The problem is that asking for help carries risk. Our human brains know there is always a risk that our request for help will be ignored-discounted-denied-rejected, even laughed at. It is only trust in the other that gets us over the abyss of not knowing.
What we witness in the film is an act of trust. A little girl risks asking her parents to acknowledge her unhappiness.
Attachment is the process of learning, in our earliest years, whether or not trust is worth the gamble. If you need help, are other people likely to be there for you? Or is it better to rely only on yourself? Insecurely attached people have learned that asking for help often doesn’t pay off. They know that help with sadness is not reliably forthcoming. Insecurely attached people become biologically wired for unresolved loss. It’s a tough way to live.
Bowlby, the grandfather of attachment theory, understood the central role that loss plays in the search for human happiness. That’s why he wrote a whole trilogy on the topic. Without the ability to resolve loss, there can be no sustainable joy, no resilient emotional health, no secure attachment. Without help and comfort from other people, young children’s immature brains have no chance at all of resolving the losses they feel. That goes from the tiny losses to the bigger ones, whether it’s mum saying you can’t have sweets or it’s mum saying goodbye at the nursery door.
I think the film is trying to hint that even worse consequences may await if sadness remains suppressed long term. Had Joy not given way, and allowed Sadness to take charge of Riley’s mind, then both of those emotions might have been disempowered forever. That would have left the other three emotions in predominant charge of her mind: Fear, Anger and Disgust.
That’s one way of describing the outcomes being revealed by the ACE Study. Children who experience relationship traumas are much more likely, as adults, to end up in poor health, in prison, struggling to hold down a job and relationships. Because they could not get enough help in resolving their early sadnesses, the negative emotions of Fear, Anger, and Disgust began to run rampant in their mind. Our society pays heavily for that internal havoc.
This week, I had a meeting with the service manager of Safe and Sound, a Dundee-based project sponsored by the charity Shelter, that provides support to young people at risk of running away from home. He told me the story of one 12-year-old girl who had run away, ending up homeless and sexually trafficked. A shiver ran down my back when I found myself thinking: that could have been Riley, had she not trusted her parents enough to turn around and get off that bus.
Disney-Pixar films don’t end that way, of course. Hugs are waiting to resolve the drama. But real lives often do. Way too many children in our society can’t find anyone who will listen to their sadness. So they stay on the bus.