Going to the movie theatre is a rare occurrence for my family. In fact, the first time I took my kids to the movies was a couple months ago to see Inside Out – Pixar’s latest animated feature. Well, we loved it. So much so that we had to see it again! This time my wife was able to join us, which meant that Inside Out became our first family cinema experience, and I’m sure glad it was.
This flick has it all: joy, sadness, disgust, fear, and Lewis Black…uh…I mean, Anger. It took us back to the carefree days of our childhood right up to the challenging years of grade school. It animated the complexities of love, loneliness, and family in a way that was both simple and profound. Really, this film is a testament to Pixar’s masterful storytelling ability.
But something important was missing…or rather, someone.
Perhaps I misunderstood, but if we were to take this film at face value it seems to be implying that our emotions drive our decision-making. Really, if you watch the scenes carefully, right after the emotions debate what course of action to take and—either through consensus, force, or deferral—make a decision, the film cuts to Riley’s face, which often looks like it was just recovering from a temporary shut down (see images below). Riley seemed like a puppet waiting for her strings to be pulled.
Before I continue, I want talk about the science of emotions. I’m not an expert on this topic, but I am a graduate student in experimental psychology, and have encountered most of the basic theories. Also, I have personal experience with emotion and have spent many hours introspecting on the relationship between my emotions and “Me.” However, this is not a scholarly piece and I don’t want to bore you with a written summary of psychological theory. Instead, I’ll let my favorite science communicator, Hank Green, teach you the prevalent theories of emotion. Please watch the following video before reading on:
Alright, so in this video they present a few different theories of emotion. I want to draw particular attention to the Two-Factor Theory, which states that to experience emotion one must (1) be physically aroused and (2) cognitively label the arousal. Hank Green summarized the Two-Factor theory by stating that “arousal spurs emotion, but cognition directs it.” It’s important to note that when Hank (or scientists in general) uses the term “cognition,” he’s referring to a term that I’ve basically come to understand as the uber-materialist substitute for the “thinking self,” a.k.a., the “rational soul,” a.k.a., “the ego.” Honestly, nobody actually understands what “cognition” really implies, but it encapsulates the processes of knowledge acquisition, understanding, thinking, and higher-level mentality. Most importantly, it sounds mechanical, which is easier for empiricists to digest than silly terms like “rational self.” That’s just philosophy crap (note the sarcasm).
Anywho, back to Pixar.
In the movie, the emotions debate and, somehow, make a decision for Riley. However, based on my understanding of the research and my own experience as an emotional being, this isn’t actually what happens. In fact, there is another character involved that the filmmakers happened to leave out. A character I’m going to call the Captain. My Captain probably looks like this:
Itself not an emotional being, the Captain is the decision maker: the final arbiter in all our inner battles. Of course, when we are young the Captain is still immature and learning to exercise its powers. More often than not the Captain defers to the loudest emotion or makes decisions that are hasty and uninformed. However, with time, education, and training the Captain’s skills are refined and hopefully, as a mature adult, it learns to direct our behaviours with moderation, wisdom, tact, and self-restraint. It is no longer a slave to its crew of emotions; rather, it navigates the Ship of Self by consulting emotions and making decisions based on reason, experience, and virtue.
I hope there is a sequel, and I really hope to see the Captain play a leading role in Riley’s developing mind.