Brain Tease

Professor of Psychology Robert Kurzban analyzes Pixar's "Inside Out."

Thursday, July 9, 2015

By Blake Cole

Film studio Pixar has developed a reputation for nuanced plotlines that speak to audiences both young and old, but with its new movie, Inside Out, the studio enters a new realm entirely: child psychology. In order to navigate the mechanisms at work in the film—which has been hailed as having rekindled a discussion about the way children think—we sat down with Professor of Psychology Robert Kurzban, whose research on the mind’s ability to create customized modules, or adaptations, relates closely to young protagonist Riley’s emotional journey.

Blake Cole: In the movie, Riley, an 11-year-old girl who has just been uprooted from her long-time home, is represented by five emotions: joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger. Can the modular mind be likened to this kind of emotional categorization as a basis in our behavior?

Robert Kurzban: I think that the movie resonates pretty well with that view. Modularity really means that there’s a separation of functions. And so in that sense I think it’s fair to say that the separation of the emotions this way parallels the idea that the mind consists of a lot of different systems that have to work together.

BC: In addition to steering her behavior, these emotions also influence her recollection of memories. Does the modular mind train itself to fall back on previous experiences?

RK: Memory is not a simple thing where you just store stuff and then retrieve it. It’s influenced by lots of different factors, including other modular systems. Research and psychology would support the view that what you remember depends to some extent on your current emotional state. For example, most of us recall exactly what we were doing when we learned about the attacks on 9/11. When our emotions are powerfully engaged, the memories we form are often very strong ones.

BC: One of the main themes in the movie is that striving to maintain any one kind of emotion, at the expense of all the rest, can be detrimental. Is this the case with the modular mind?

RK: The reason that we have these different emotional systems is because they all have functions—they’re all useful for something. You certainly wouldn’t want to suppress disgust all the time because then you might not avoid the things that disgust is there to make you avoid. Disgust is in there for a pretty good reason, which is that touching things that are likely to contain pathogens is a bad idea. So given that they all have functions, everything else equal, you’d expect that, if you completely suppress one of those functions, something potentially bad is going to happen.

Pain gets you to stop doing stuff that’s causing tissue damage or damaging your social relationships. It’s unpleasant, but you really wouldn’t want to do without it. So, the modular mind has this delicate ballet of different functions to orchestrate at any given moment, depending on the situation, the opportunities, the threats, and so on. It’s inevitable that sometimes different emotions work at cross-purposes. Consider a mom treating a sick child. The emotion of disgust might be working to make her keep her distance, but the emotion of love easily overcomes disgust.

BC: Where does our control over those modules end, and where does the evolutionary aspect begin?

RK: Well, “control” is itself an evolutionary aspect, but one way to think about this question is to think about reward. The modern world exposes us to a bewildering array of experiences that activate our reward systems, everything from candy to video games to pornography. We find these things rewarding because of our evolved psychology. And the fact is that we tend to do things over and over again that we have found rewarding in the past. So life experiences really matter.

Here at the University of Pennsylvania we have a Positive Psychology Center where there is a lot of research being done about figuring out the big ways in which you can structure your life in order to try to build a happier you. And so there I think a key message from that line of work is that we really do have the ability to structure our lives to help us avoid temptations that aren’t good for us in the long run.

BC: In the movie Riley ends up “discarding” immature or outdated memories. Does the modular mind update in this regard?

RK: You can’t store every single experience you’ve ever had; the memory system would be quickly overloaded, and recall would be incredibly difficult. So, the system has to be designed to be stingy about what to keep in there. In the movie this movement of memory to storage is one way that you can keep stuff in there that you’re going to need, but throw out the stuff you don’t. You don’t need to remember how you learned the word “cow,” you just have to know what it means, so you throw out the episode of learning the word. And as you get older, that process continues.

A key lesson is that one’s needs change over the course of one’s life. Here at Penn, Sharon Thompson-Schill, (Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology), has done some really interesting work on the frontal areas of the brain and how having an immature frontal area is actually a good thing when one is young. So it’s not just that your brain is getting “better”—it’s just different. And so over the course of a lifetime this rewiring goes from everything from your theories about the world, to your memories, to your semantic knowledge and so on.

BC: When we think about how different people react to crises, whether it’s immediate, or, in the sense of this movie, a kind of failure to thrive in a new environment, how does that differ from person to person?

RK:  What we do know is that people’s thought processes are obviously very different from one another. And that’s in part due to differences in experience, though some might also be due to differences in genes. People differ in important ways in terms of their personalities, and those personality differences are probably going to have a big effect on adapting to a new environment.

BC: Do you think a fictional movie like Inside Out that brings attention to issues of psychology is a good thing?

RK: I do. I think that any movie that gets people to think about scientific issues, whether it’s psychology or physics or biology or what have you, is positive. Now of course there is going to be a departure from the actual state of scientific knowledge. And that’s fine; moviemaking is after all a creative art. But I think if films like this get students interested in how the mind works, it’s a good thing. And I don’t think it matters if it gets everything 100 percent right.