Tag Archives: joy

Pixar’s ‘Inside Out’ – A lesson in loss

Pixar’s hit summer film – Inside Out – is all about loss. That means it’s also all about attachment, even though the term doesn’t feature anywhere in the film.

As I sat watching the film in my 3-D glasses, I wondered how much training the writers or directors had received in brain function, cognitive theory, or developmental psychology.  The film is packed full of scientific information. Yet, relatively few published reviews have commented on this scientific base, and none of the interview clips with writers and directors seem to discuss the links.

So in this article I thought it would be fun to highlight some of the scientific knowledge that underpins the film’s philosophical reflections. This allows the film to become more than entertainment. It becomes an aide-memoir for us adults, as to how we can nurture secure attachment in our children, while also better meeting our own emotional needs.

1. Why these particular five emotions? 

The film features five emotions as living in the control centre of 11-year-old Riley’s mind: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Why were those particular emotions chosen?

The film is based on the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, whose seminal research studying facial expressions, begun in the 1970s, has charted universal human emotions. His investigations reveal that there are seven basic human emotions: those featured in the film, plus surprise and contempt.

Certainly there are other ways to conceive of emotions. For example, Robert Plutchik has created an elegant ‘wheel’ model, based on eight basic emotions. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, known for her work on bereavement, narrowed it down to two: love and fear.  All these theorists argue that our more complex human emotions ultimately boil down to just a few basic ones.

It doesn’t really matter which framework is ‘correct’. What matters is that the film offers us a practical way of looking upon our emotions. It gives us perspective — a tool for making sense of what is happening inside our chattering heads and bodies. If you want a sane life, that external perspective is essential. You need to be able to stand a bit outside your emotions, so that you don’t get swamped by them. Emotions flood through our brains continually throughout the day, and they feel all too real to us in the moment

Swamping is exactly what will have happened in the tragic road rage incident recently reported in the UK news.  Donald Locke, a 79-year-old beloved grandfather, was stabbed to death by 34-year-old Matthew Daley, over a minor road traffic incident. Terrible, life-long loss has descended on a family because a stranger was caught up in a flood of emotion he could not control. If we proclaim, “Well, he just should have tried harder!”, then we fail to understand what the science of attachment is telling us.  Acknowledging Daley’s emotional state doesn’t condone what he did.  Rather, it forces us to think more deeply about the biological drivers of behaviour.

What Pixar has done is give us a way to engage more actively with the emotions that so often take control of our minds:

        1. give them names;
        2. make them seem funny if you can, so that they aren’t so scary;
        3. start watching to see which one of them usually wins your internal battles.

Health professionals these days call this process ‘mindfulness’. Psychologists call it ‘monitoring emotional regulatory processes’. We, the public, might call it ‘relief’ – once we master the technique.

Its all too easy to get caught up in a wee flood of emotion. There’s a scene in the film when Riley’s dad ‘puts his foot down’ and punishes her for an angry outburst. Since Joy and Sadness weren’t around to help her at that point, Anger had taken over her mind’s control centre, and he was doing his best to help. What Riley needed in that moment was her Dad’s concern, even if she wasn’t able to communicate that need very well. But because Dad was so overwhelmed by his own feelings of frustration, he was unable to see hers.

I imagine that every parent watching the film feels their heart sink with recognition when it gets to that scene. It isn’t only our children who are subject to emotional floods.

2. Why is it Joy and Sadness who end up journeying together?

In Plutchik’s conception of emotions, with its eight basic categories organized into a wheel, emotions come in pairs. Within each pair, the two emotions are regarded as counters to one another. Joy and sadness are one of Plutchik’s pairs.

Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions

The other pairs are: disgust and trust; fear and anger; surprise and anticipation. Heavens, what a mess emotions are! The film makes that mess seem somehow comprehensible, even while the five characters argue endlessly over who will be in charge of Riley’s mind. Imagine the pandemonium had the directors decided to expand to include all eight of Plutchik’s categories!

So why are Joy and Sadness the two pals who end up on the adventurous road trip through Riley’s brain? Is it because the writers want to remind us, similarly to Plutchik, just how bonded these two contrasting emotions are? In order to know joy, we humans must also know sorrow. This is an uncomfortable truth to swallow, because sadness feels so hard for us humans to bear.

The poets have perhaps done a better job than the scientists in getting us to recognise the synchrony of these two emotions. Albert Camus, for example, put it metaphorically:

“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”

Kahlil Gibran expressed it more directly:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.…The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

There are, these days, a number of speakers delivering high profile TED Talks who are trying to convey this same message, such as Emma Gibbs on heartbreak and Tracy McMillan on ‘marrying yourself’. One of the best known is the lecture by Professor Brene Brown.  Her message is that in order to live a full and joyous life, we have to stay in touch with our vulnerability. The problem is that vulnerability opens us up to sorrow. Living consciously with vulnerability takes strength and courage.

Pixar, then, is the latest in a stream of contributors trying to find a way to guide us through an age-old human dilemma. This not just a story about a child; it is a story about our species.

3. Why is it Sadness who saves the day?

 At the heart of the film is a drama of loss. Riley’s family has moved, and she is struggling to adjust, missing her friends and life back home. The film hinges on the question of how Riley will handle this loss. Might she go as far as running away, abandoning her parents and destroying their happiness as a family?

The character of Joy tries diligently to find a solution to this emergency. She is determined to keep Riley in touch with all her happy memories.

But Joy fails. She cannot save the day. It is Sadness who saves the day.

This is the process of attachment in action! Riley needs help. She cannot resolve her dilemma on her own. She is deeply unhappy and she needs her parents to help her deal with that. But telling them carries a risk. What if she disappoints them, because she is no longer their happy-go-lucky daughter? What if they turn away from her truth, because they can’t bear to accept that their actions have caused her sadness? What if they diminish her pain, because it seems silly to them? What if they feel helpless in the face of it?

Sadness is not meant to be carried alone. Human sadness is heavy. It prompts a flood of hormones that drain you of joy. That’s why sadness is meant to be shared. It becomes bearable once someone helps you with it, once you are not alone with it, once someone is willing to sit down in the sadness with you. Brene Brown’s animated short film on empathy beautifully depicts the power of such companionship.

The problem is that asking for help carries risk. Our human brains know there is always a risk that our request for help will be ignored-discounted-denied-rejected, even laughed at. It is only trust in the other that gets us over the abyss of not knowing.

What we witness in the film is an act of trust. A little girl risks asking her parents to acknowledge her unhappiness.

Attachment is the process of learning, in our earliest years, whether or not trust is worth the gamble. If you need help, are other people likely to be there for you? Or is it better to rely only on yourself? Insecurely attached people have learned that asking for help often doesn’t pay off. They know that help with sadness is not reliably forthcoming. Insecurely attached people become biologically wired for unresolved loss. It’s a tough way to live.

Bowlby, the grandfather of attachment theory, understood the central role that loss plays in the search for human happiness.  That’s why he wrote a whole trilogy on the topic.  Without the ability to resolve loss, there can be no sustainable joy, no resilient emotional health, no secure attachment.  Without help and comfort from other people, young children’s immature brains have no chance at all of resolving the losses they feel.  That goes from the tiny losses to the bigger ones, whether it’s mum saying you can’t have sweets or it’s mum saying goodbye at the nursery door.

I think the film is trying to hint that even worse consequences may await if sadness remains suppressed long term. Had Joy not given way, and allowed Sadness to take charge of Riley’s mind, then both of those emotions might have been disempowered forever. That would have left the other three emotions in predominant charge of her mind: Fear, Anger and Disgust.

Model of ACE Study Outcomes

That’s one way of describing the outcomes being revealed by the ACE Study. Children who experience relationship traumas are much more likely, as adults, to end up in poor health, in prison, struggling to hold down a job and relationships. Because they could not get enough help in resolving their early sadnesses, the negative emotions of Fear, Anger, and Disgust began to run rampant in their mind. Our society pays heavily for that internal havoc.

This week, I had a meeting with the service manager of Safe and Sound, a Dundee-based project sponsored by the charity Shelter, that provides support to young people at risk of running away from home. He told me the story of one 12-year-old girl who had run away, ending up homeless and sexually trafficked. A shiver ran down my back when I found myself thinking: that could have been Riley, had she not trusted her parents enough to turn around and get off that bus.

Disney-Pixar films don’t end that way, of course. Hugs are waiting to resolve the drama. But real lives often do. Way too many children in our society can’t find anyone who will listen to their sadness. So they stay on the bus.


Parting is hell: That’s the point of attachment

Kayden and the rainLast weekend, I attended the memorial service of a friend. She was much loved, as demonstrated by the fact that more than 350 other people were there too. Each of us was trying to find a way to celebrate her life, to bid her goodbye, and most of all, to find a way to live with our sense of loss.

As I listened to one of the readings, I found myself thinking: “Ah yes, that’s another way to describe attachment.”

If I should go before the rest of you,
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone
Nor, when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must: Parting is hell.
But, life goes on
So… sing as well.

This is the popular poem written by English entertainer Joyce Grenfell. It was read out by a brave young granddaughter.

We instinctively get it, in the context of bereavement. Loss is hard. In fact, it’s terrible. It makes you cry, even when you don’t want to. It sneaks up on you when you weren’t expecting it. You hold on to whatever memory might get you through: one that makes you laugh, comforts you, leaves you feeling less alone. Or you try to make the feelings go away. You chew your lip; your press your fingers together until they hurt; you stop breathing. You fear that you might drown under the rising sense of panic and pain, if you can’t get it under control.

This is attachment. This is the point of Grenfell’s simple brutal line. “Weep if you must: Parting is hell.”

Photo by our team's photographer, Brett Housego, from his series 'Hearts in Nature'

Photo by our team’s photographer, Brett Housego, from his series ‘Hearts in Nature’

Attachment is about loss.

We don’t have to have the scientific language of ‘attachment to identify with the human experience of loss. That’s why we are kind to the person who is crying. We seek some way to comfort them. We wrap them in our arms, or cry with them, or tell a funny story, or stand protectively nearby. We make emotional space if that’s what they seem to need, because kindness can make the feelings worse, knocking down the dam and exacerbating the sense of losing control. Should things get so bad that they end up kicking a tree or smashing a plate of sandwiches, we forgive the behaviour, because we recognise that it comes from pain.

It really is painful. A growing number of studies* using MRI and other scanning technology, have shown that emotional pain is processed by the brain using the same areas as is the case for physical pain.

We get it. Our brains get it. Loss is brutal. Parting is hell.

What fascinates me, as a human being and as a research scientist, is that in other settings, we are less likely to get it. We often don’t recognise when behaviours and emotions are being driven by attachment needs. We fail to glimpse the underlying struggle with disappointment. This oversight is especially likely with our young children.

It is understandably easy for parents to miss moments of loss. We’re tired. We’re exhausted. We’re juggling deadlines and pressure. We’re adults, so we can’t remember what it was like to experience the world for the first time, fresh and confusing.

So we underestimate our children’s sense of loss. We read frustration as misbehaviour, not as disappointment. We can’t fathom what all the drama is about. And even when we can, we may not have the time or energy to deal patiently with it. That’s when conflict leaves wounds: when we aren’t able to respond empathically – kindly — to our children’s feelings of loss.

This is the source of attachment patterns: the ways in which adults respond to children’s feelings of loss. I find this single piece of information to be invaluable, because once you know that loss is the key thing to look for, you see attachment moments happening everywhere.

Here’s a good example. This is a charming little film called ‘Kayden and the Rain’, posted on Vimeo in February 2014. It shows a 15-month-old toddler discovering rain for the first time. Kayden’s joy proved so endearing for viewers that the film went viral, viewed at least one million times over the past year. Numerous bloggers have picked up on the film, commenting that it reminds us adults to appreciate the simple things in life – like rain.

There is an aspect of the film that no one, to my knowledge, has yet commented on: the brief moment of conflict. One of the adults in Kayden’s life – her mum? — has decided that getting wet in the rain is a bad idea, and so she picks Kayden up and runs back into the house. But Kayden has other ideas. She immediately kicks her feet in resistance, urgently muttering ‘Mama, Mama, Mama’. As soon as she is put down, Kayden heads back down the pathway, so that she can once again stand in the amazing rain.

In that moment of conflict, we are witnessing a moment of loss. This is a moment in which a child wants the joy she is feeling to continue. She doesn’t want this wondrous experience to end. We are witnessing a moment in which an adult is thwarting joy because they think they have a better idea: staying dry.

I do not say any of this to criticize the adult’s actions. Kayden’s mum was doing what we all do: trying to get through the day making her best judgments. What is notable, from an attachment point of view, is that conflict resulted. What the adult wanted and what the child wanted differed. This happens ALL THE TIME in families!

It is in such moments of conflict that attachment patterns are formed. This means that attachment is inherently about loss and disappointment. The way that a parent or caregiver resolves a child’s sense of loss is what forms secure and insecure attachment patterns.

In the moment of conflict captured in this film, we see Mum respond by giving way. Kayden proves to be so irrepressible that her mother lets go of her own ideas. She makes it possible for Kayden to continue rejoicing in the existence of rain. Indeed, it is Kayden’s determination to return to that place of joy that stamps the charm into this film. And then all the adults around her join in! We see everyone laughing with delight as they share Kayden’s sense of awe with her. That spontaneous act of emotional sharing is a demonstration of what developmental theorists mean by the term ‘intersubjectivity’.

Imagine if Kayden’s mother had responded to that moment of conflict in another way. What if she had firmly closed the door, to prevent Kayden from getting wet and catching a cold? Or what if she had been trying to manage a tight schedule, with the family needing to climb into the car? Imagine how Kayden’s sense of loss would have escalated then. Imagine her crying and screaming from behind that door. Imagine her perhaps kicking the door, and maybe even knocking over a plate of sandwiches from the nearby table, because it was just too much to bear, being parted from the joy of the rain.

Photo is by our team's photographer, Brett Housego, from his series Hearts in Nature

Photo is by our team’s photographer, Brett Housego, from his series ‘Hearts in Nature’

I am not saying that either course of action would have been the ‘right’ one for her mother to take. I am not saying anything about the decisions that any parent should take. I am saying something more basic. I am saying that life is hard. It is full of loss.

That is as true for our children as it is for us adults. We lose people we love. Parents die; lovers tell us they want to end the relationship; friends move away. We are disappointed that experiences we relish have to stop. Its time to come in out of the rain; its time to put away the toys; its time to stop hoping I will buy you a pack of Smarties.

Attachment is the process of learning to cope with loss – the loss of people, of pleasure, of a wish. Attachment is the process of learning how to recover from loss, and how to stay open to whatever comes next. Grenfell was right. That process is hell.

We are lucky if, as children, we find that there are people around who can be counted on to help us when we’re suffering from disappointment. If they help us, comfort us, keep us safe from the overwhelming sense that we may drown in grief, then we unconsciously learn how to help ourselves. Our physiological system develops in such a way that it can promote our emotional recovery, rather than our continuing distress.

Continuing distress makes us ill. That’s the point of the many emerging health studies.**

Emotional recovery is what researchers now call ‘resilience’. But sitting in that packed memorial service, I found the scientist in me thinking: Grenfell’s way of expressing it is so much more eloquent. That’s what she really means when she encourages us to sing. She means we should find a way to live with the ache of joy.

Weep if you must: Parting is hell.
But, life goes on
So… sing as well.


* Examples of studies showing the brain’s processing of social and physical pain:

  • Romantic break ups. Kross, E, et al. (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. http://www.pnas.org/content/108/15/6270.full
  • Friendship.    Eisenberger, N, et al. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An FMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14551436
  • For a review of this literature, see: R. Pond, et al. (2014). ‘Social Pain and the Brain: How Insights from Neuroimaging Advance the Study of Social Rejection’, in T. Dorina Papageorgiou et al. (Ed.), Advanced Brain Neuroimaging Topics in Health and Disease: Methods and Applications.   http://www.intechopen.com/books/advanced-brain-neuroimaging-topics-in-health-and-disease-methods-and-applications

** Examples of studies charting impact of childhood experiences on health: