Science, Now + Beyond

3 truths and a lie about what “Inside Out” tells us about our brain

You're probably wondering if what's going on inside her brain happens inside yours too.

When I was a kid I would grasp scientific concepts easily through TV shows and films like “Bill Nye the Science Guy” or “Mythbusters,” (which were very science-y). But now writers are coming up with new ideas to creatively introduce kids to the world of science. Last year’s “Inside Out” was a hit and a great example of Pixar’s attempt at educating children.

Before I get into it, here’s a brief overview of what the movie is about: an 11-year-old Midwestern girl leads a happy life until she moves to San Francisco with her family. While this is happening in the real world, the five emotions inside her brain (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear) are trying to avoid the inevitable chaos caused by growing up and undergoing an important life change.

Whether you’ve seen it or not, you’re probably wondering if what’s going on inside Riley’s brain happens inside ours too. Although the intent of the writers was to create a film that would entertain kids while introducing them to the basics of neuroscience, there’s many things in there that are not entirely scientific. Here’s what’s true and what’s not.

1. True: sleep consolidates long-term memories

In the film, memories are like crystal balls that are tainted the color of one of the emotions. For example, if they’re sad memories, they’re blue because Sadness (the emotion) is blue. When Riley goes to sleep, headquarters (where the five emotions live) shut down and the balls get sucked up by a vacuum that takes them to long-term memory.

Although our memories are not crystal balls, there’s some truth to this. Our working memory is only supposed to keep track of tasks at hand and facts, but once we enter deep sleep, our brain chooses which memories to keep in the long-term.

2. True: we reframe memories

When Riley remembers an event, one of the memory crystal balls is placed in the center of headquarters. As mentioned before, this ball can be any of five colors (depending on the emotion associated with it). For instance, when Riley remembers when her hockey team lost, the crystal ball is tainted blue, but when she remembers when her team came to cheer her up soon after, the ball turns yellow.

This process of Riley’s memories changing color depending on her current emotional state is actually very similar to real life. Although it doesn’t necessarily show up in our brains as a “color change,” it has been scientifically proven that we remember things differently depending on our current emotions. This process is called “reframing.”

3. Kind of true: “personality islands”

When Riley was a toddler, she started developing what the movie calls “personality islands,” which are depicted as theme parks. These include key aspects to her identity (i.e. family, goofiness, love for hockey, etc.). When she moves to another city and her life starts changing, these islands start to collapse.

Our brain doesn’t contain these “personality islands”, but there are personality factors that constitute our identity. American University psychologist Nathaniel Herr, says that there are certain descriptors for how we respond to stimuli that shape our personalities (i.e. extroversion and neuroticism), but that is not quite how “Inside Out” portrays it.

4. Not true: “imagination land” exists

Riley’s brain contains an island where all of the things she imagines live; this includes things like an imaginary boyfriend and her childhood imaginary friend.

But the truth is, scientists still don’t know how we do this. In 2013, scientist put subjects in an MRI scanner and observed the places in the brain that lit up as they imagined things. But it’s still unclear how this works.

So although the film certainly went above and beyond with their depiction of the human brain, some details portrayed in “Inside Out” are actually kind of true. I mean, it’s definitely hard to explain such a complicated thing to children, but kudos to Pixar for making an entertaining film that is not 100% scientifically fallacious.