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Inside Out’ Movie Reflects the Realities and Fantasies of Neuroscience

Image: "Inside Out" characters

The Pixar animated movie "Inside Out" anthropomorphizes five emotions in the brain of an 11-year-old girl: from left, Anger, Disgust, Joy, Fear and Sadness. Disney / Pixar

"Inside Out" is more than just the latest animated movie from Pixar — the makers of "Toy Story," "Up," "Finding Nemo" and more. It's also a kid-friendly introduction to real-life neuroscience.

Eric Chudler, who's the executive director of the University of Washington's Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering as well as the creator of the "Neuroscience for Kids" website, thinks that's great: "Any type of portrayal of the brain in cartoons can get kids interested in how the brain works and what makes it tick," he said.

And "Inside Out" isn't just any portrayal: Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, an expert on the science of emotions, was a consultant on the movie — which portrays Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear and Disgust as colorful characters interacting inside the brain of an 11-year-old girl named Riley.

"I'm getting emails from all over the world," Keltner told NBC News. "What people are learning is that emotions have a purpose, that they change, and that we should embrace that."

"Inside Out" turns neuroscience inside-out: The choice of characters reflects the research of Keltner's mentor at Berkeley, Paul Ekman, who studies how emotions are expressed across different cultures. Ekman and his colleagues determined that humans possess a standard toolkit of facial expressions for six or seven emotions, regardless of their upbringing.

The filmmakers turned five of the emotions on Ekman's list into animated characters. Two others — surprise and contempt — were left out of the script for simplicity's sake. Who knows? Maybe they'll pop up in the sequel.

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In the movie, the characters inside Riley's head support each other, or get in each other's way, just like the emotions in our own heads.

"It's nice to see that the different emotions are somewhat separate but talk to each other," Chudler told NBC News. "For example, there's no real 'anger center'; rather, different parts of the brain work together to make sense of the world and coordinate complex behavior."

Christof Koch, chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, said the inner workings of emotional responses are far less clear-cut in reality than they might seem in the movie. "This assumes that you have these five explicit conscious streams in front of you, but of course you don't have conscious access to those things," he told NBC News.

"We are strangers to ourselves, and in particular we are strangers to our own mind," Koch said. "We have all these emotions, but very often we have no idea why we have them."

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It turns out that "Inside Out" came into being partly because Keltner and Pixar director Pete Docter — who have been friends for a long time — were intrigued by the mysterious ways of emotions in their own kids. "Our conversations are really a series of questions, and Pete asked, 'What are emotions like in a 12-year-old girl?'" Keltner recalled. "So we were thinking about how emotions shift."

The research suggests that kids in their pre-teens and early teens often experience a precipitous drop in happiness and a rise in anxiety. "It's like the world crashes down on them," Keltner said. The movie traces that shift, with tear-inducing as well as laugh-inducing effects.

Keltner likes how "Inside Out" shows Riley dealing with that shift. "You're not forever held hostage by your emotions," he observed. And he likes how the parents deal with it as well. "They embrace her change," Keltner said. "You have to embrace that — because that's where kids have to go."

Getting a better understanding of how the brain works, and particularly how our own emotions work, would be a dream come true for adolescents and their parents — and for neuroscientists as well.

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For some hands-on experiments in brain science, check out Chudler's website, Neuroscience for Kids. One of Chudler's favorites is an exercise that helps you find your visual blind spot. You can read more about Keltner's perspective on the neuroscience of "Inside Out" in this Berkeley news release.