FIVE years ago, the writer and director Pete Docter of Pixar reached out to us to talk over an idea for a film, one that would portray how emotions work inside a person’s head and at the same time shape a person’s outer life with other people. He wanted to do this all in the mind of an 11-year-old girl as she navigated a few difficult days in her life.
As scientists who have studied emotion for decades, we were delighted to be asked. We ended up serving as scientific consultants for the movie, “Inside Out,” which was recently released.
Our conversations with Mr. Docter and his team were generally about the science related to questions at the heart of the film: How do emotions govern the stream of consciousness? How do emotions color our memories of the past? What is the emotional life of an 11-year-old girl like? (Studies find that the experience of positive emotions begins to drop precipitously in frequency and intensity at that age.)
“Inside Out” is about how five emotions — personified as the characters Anger, Disgust, Fear, Sadness and Joy — grapple for control of the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley during the tumult of a move from Minnesota to San Francisco. (One of us suggested that the film include the full array of emotions now studied in science, but Mr. Docter rejected this idea for the simple reason that the story could handle only five or six characters.)
Riley’s personality is principally defined by Joy, and this is fitting with what we know scientifically. Studies find that our identities are defined by specific emotions, which shape how we perceive the world, how we express ourselves and the responses we evoke in others.
But the real star of the film is Sadness, for “Inside Out” is a film about loss and what people gain when guided by feelings of sadness. Riley loses friends and her home in her move from Minnesota. Even more poignantly, she has entered the preteen years, which entails a loss of childhood.
We do have some quibbles with the portrayal of sadness in “Inside Out.” Sadness is seen as a drag, a sluggish character that Joy literally has to drag around through Riley’s mind. In fact, studies find that sadness is associated with elevated physiological arousal, activating the body to respond to loss. And in the film, Sadness is frumpy and off-putting. More often in real life, one person’s sadness pulls other people in to comfort and help. …