With the recent release of Pixar’s latest movie, The Good Dinosaur, I thought I would revisit their previous film, Inside Out. Inside Out follows the five main emotions (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear) of 11-year-old Riley as they guide her through her family’s move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Themes of the movie include how Riley experiences her world and how these experiences are translated into long-term memories, some of which define Riley’s personality. As a graduate student who studies memory, I was intrigued by the movie’s depiction of it. Fortunately, the movie does a nice (and entertaining) job. So what does it get right?

Throughout the day, Riley’s emotions cooperate in “Headquarters” to frame her conscious mind and help her process the world around her. When Riley goes to sleep each night, her daily experiences (packaged as little colored globes) leave Headquarters and head down tubes to long-term storage. Likewise, research has demonstrated the importance of sleep for transferring our memories from a fragile state to a more durable one, or consolidating them.

However, some of Riley’s memories change when she retrieves them. For example, in one scene, Riley recalls a memory about hockey – an originally happy experience represented by a gold globe. The emotion Sadness touches it, and the memory turns blue and becomes associated with a sad time. When Joy catches Sadness putting her magic touch on this memory, Joy exclaims that once a memory is altered, it is changed forever. This interaction speaks to a few findings from memory research. Similar to how Riley’s hockey memory is altered, our memories do become malleable when we revisit them, and during this time, they can update and change. This can happen any time weIllustration by Allie Mills retrieve a memory, so unlike Joy’s claim, our memories are never set in stone. Further, these alterations occur in more than just emotional association. For Riley, the actual content of her memories (i.e., the experiences themselves) stays the same. However, memory is not like a video recorder; it is constantly being reconstructed, rewritten, and remade.

Inside Out addresses another concept familiar to us all: forgetting. In the film, Riley’s unused memories begin to fade, losing their original color, and can disappear into the “Memory Dump.” In a similar fashion, our own memories strengthen when repeated and weaken when unused. Not only that, as memories weaken, they often become semanticized, meaning they lose their self-referential character and detail and gain a more generic and gist-like feel.

The distinction between self-referential and gist-like memories is more generally indicative of the distinction between episodic memory (memory for personal experiences with contextual detail) and semantic memory (memory for facts or general knowledge void of context). Riley’s memories display this classification as well. Colored globes represent Riley’s personal episodic experiences (playing hockey, attending the first day of her new school, etc.), while completely gray ones represent her semantic knowledge, such as her memory for a phone number.

Inside Out is a great, fun movie. To expect it to perfectly portray the process of memory – such a multifaceted construct – is unreasonable. But it is evident that the writers did their homework, and they ended up with a nice representation, so enjoy it!


Peer edited by Nicole Tackmann and Holly Bullis

Illustration by Allie Mills

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This article was co-published on the TIBBS Bioscience Blog.

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