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Inside Out: Bad News for Neuroscience

July 2, 2015

I just saw the movie Inside Out. It is receiving praise from psychologists, but it is also being criticized by others regarding the actual neuroscience. Most of the criticism is about the physical portrayal of memory. The movie uses a combination of actual physical constructs mixed with anthropomorphic characters that embody emotional and cognitive functions. There isn’t much criticism about the abstract homonculi that are used to portray the emotions, and that is partly because the approach sidesteps any need to depict the physiology. Psychologist reviews are plentiful, such as this Business Insider interview with psychologist Nathaniel Herr.

Basically, therapists and psychologists find Inside Out to be helpful. Unfortunately neuroscience is not likely to find any help here. Neuroscientists are quick to jump on the inaccuracies in the movie about memory, and there are many. For a short, mild critique, read from neuroscientist Heather McKellar. Or try a more detailed critique by Antonia Peacocke and Jackson Kernion, two PhD students in philosophy, who do a fairly good job of addressing the neuroscience. I’m surprised the movie attempted a highly concrete explanation of memory, and it’s not clear to me why they wanted to try it. The only advantage I see is that they were able to provide some scope to extreme capacity of the brain. Clearly their goal wasn’t to inspire or teach people about memory, however.

I am surprised that there is less discussion out there about the “islands of personality”, which was another physical construct in the movie. These “islands” were unique constructions that combined aspects of memory and function together. Though still somewhat abstract, they are an interesting way to represent complex distributed neural networks. There are some definite failings in the analogy though, such as the fact that they are literally islands and only connect to a central headquarters, and also the way in which an entire “island” can be incapacitated. Still, I liked the idea of trying to visualize the physiology of what makes each person unique.

It’s too bad that the movie isn’t suited to promoting interest in neuroscience. Not only does it get the science wrong, but it even portrays the low level concepts as boring. This was done through a scene in which Joy, the group leader, tells Sadness to study the manuals that explain how the brain works. Joy appears to suggest that it would be fun to read the manuals, but since she is doing it as a form of control and doesn’t have any real interest herself, it is clear to the audience that only a misfit freak would want to learn such things. There is only one apparent attempt in the movie to ascribe any value to the knowledge in the manuals. That is when Sadness gives some hope of being able to help Joy find her way out of the labyrinth of memory banks. However, even that knowledge is depicted with disdain rather than being glorified. Sadness recites a series of left/right turns in a monotone voice, and the plan is abandoned all together when Joy finds another character (Bing Bong) to act as a personal guide instead.

Finally, after the real science is ignored or belittled, my own Sadness homonculus is also crying about how the general public doesn’t even know what part is the “science” and what part isn’t. I saw this article that claims to explain “How Inside Out Nailed The Science Of Kids’ Emotions”. It’s sad that people think the movie is actually about science and that the science in there is actually correct. There is a long history to the argument of whether psychology is a science. To me, the saddest part about Inside Out is that the audience may walk away thinking they finally understand how the brain really works. Clearly one goal of the movie was to help people understand their emotions better, and I applaud the attempt to address this in a way that promotes useful therapy and psychological treatment. However, anyone who might want to understand the real, physical reasons behind joy, anger, sadness, and fear will not find any inspiration in this movie.

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