Inside Out takes place "inside the head" of Riley, a young girl. The five characters are five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear) who take turns running the control panel for Riley's emotional life. During most of her childhood, Joy runs the show and Riley's life produces lots of happy memories. But when Riley's family moves to San Francisco when she is 11, her life becomes much more complicated. Fear, Anger, Sadness and Disgust are in control more often, and the memories accumulated are much more varied. A great adventure ensues.
The movie is a primer in emotional literacy. There is a great power in being able to sort and name the feelings that a person has. And to be wise about how they inter-relate, how they take and let go of control of us over time. The movie depicts many aspects of our complicated mental processing: the accumulation of memories, the process of remembering and forgetting, how memories of past are changed by present emotions, how memories feed aspects of personality. It's quite detailed.
My daughters are now adults, but I learned some things about 12 year old girls from Inside Out. And, as I often do these days, I wept as a witness of the clear expression of another's profound emotion.
But we have to remember that none of it is actually factual. The idea that there is a control panel in our head, and that five emotions take turns at the panel, and that memories stack up like bowling balls in a huge complex of racks and shelves; all of that is a model, an extended metaphor, a way that smart observers of human beings have created to describe consciousness.
The ancients looked up into the night sky and saw constellations. Those constellations don't really exist. If one studied the sky enough, one could make an entirely different set of constellations, perhaps seeing the faint outlines of the symbols of each of the NBA teams, or the badges of car manufacturers. The stars are not moved by our reimaginings.
The metaphors of Inside Out take their place along side of the other imaginings of our internal consciousness: the medievalist's theories about the "humors", church's division between our angelic, human and animal natures, the distinction between the soul, the spirit, and the psyche, the three story house of the conscious, the subconscious and the unconscious minds. All true to some extent, in that they are perceptive metaphors for human thinking and feeling.
When scientists pursue consciousness in the human brain, that matter that thinks, it seems like it gets lost somewhere in little squirts of brain juice and tiny electrical currents.
It is important to remember that people are great mysteries to others and to themselves. We feel so deeply, at least some of the time, and are able to express those feelings so incompletely. Most show more of themselves than they can ever say. And we all communicate with each other in an unspoken and inarticulate language of presence more than we can ever know. It is not accurate communication, in that cultures create barriers to communication, but it is quite amazing how people can read the emotional state of a room as soon as they enter it, or how we can tell how another rider on the bus is feeling.
This is why I choke up so often. I see other people; what they feel is so visible and yet so hidden from themselves, hidden from themselves because they cannot express what they feel in words and language. I include myself in comparing people to dogs; we have a richer emotional lives than our limited menu of barks, growls and whines can express. And so I tear up in the moment of emotional deep witness.
Go see Inside Out; it will make you think, and feel.