Pixar and the Brain Scientists

July 12, 2015   •   By Wai Chee Dimock

WHAT EXACTLY is that thing we call “mind?” In an open letter to Scientific American on June 17, five brain scientists, including Antonio Damasio and Oliver Sacks, urged the journal to take a second look at a theory that had been around since the 1930s, but had never been given a serious hearing: membrane excitability. Membrane excitability, the opening and closing of cells to outside stimuli, they said, might turn out to be the “lowest-level candidate mechanism” that allows the organism as a whole to experience a “spark of sentience.” We become conscious only when we are agitated in some way, only when our cellular equilibrium is disturbed. And the motor of our consciousness isn’t anything as calm and collected as rational thought; it is much more stimuli-based, edgier, wackier. The scientists concluded that “the higher-level awareness of animal organisms is, in essence, a consequence of the coordinated ‘irritability’ of billions of excitable cells.” This is the “membrane biology that underlies ‘mind’ and most clearly distinguishes between the placid existence of flora and the feisty, fidgety behavior of fauna.”

Two days after the open letter, Pixar’s Inside Out opened in theaters nationwide, giving us just such a feisty, fidgety specimen of the human fauna, a hockey-loving 11-year-old named Riley, her mind thrown off-kilter when her parents relocate from Minnesota to an unexpectedly crummy-looking San Francisco. With the help of a team of CGI animators, director Pete Docter turns the five emotions inside her head into five personified characters, each taking turns at the control panel. Joy is lithe and athletic and a bit bossy, and has the voice of Amy Poehler; Sadness is a blue lump, with the drippy accents of Phyllis Smith; Fear (Bill Hader) is reed-thin, bow-tie-wearing, and proverbially quaking; Disgust (Mindy Kaling) is green and mean; and Anger (Lewis Black) is a firebrick, blowing his top regularly, his hands itching for the control buttons.

Producer Jonas Rivera says that the film is informed by “the greatest hits of mind theory.” Docter read scientific papers and cross-checked plot details with brain experts. In particular he consulted with Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, who visited Pixar’s Emeryville campus a dozen times. The two had met and bonded over the parenting of preteen daughters. “One of the most precipitous drops in happiness occurs around 13,” Keltner says. That precipitous drop is dramatized in the movie by the steep zigzags of Lombard Street, offered in counterpoint to the placid levelness of that other San Francisco landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge. It is dramatized as well by the accidental ejection of Joy and Sadness from Headquarters, and their involuntary tour of the Dali-esque recesses of Riley’s mind. Long-term memory resides here in a maze of what looks like giant gumball machines, stacked with color-coded memory orbs, with a crew of “Forgetters” sweeping the outdated ones into a Memory Dump. Bing Bong, an imaginary friend from Riley’s early childhood, part elephant, part cat, and part cotton candy, ends up being part of that Dump. Joy herself is in danger of being stuck there as well, for everything seems to be falling apart inside Riley’s mind. Bridges are disappearing. “Core memory islands” like Hockey and Friendship and Family are crumbling. And Anger, Disgust, and Fear, the three remaining emotions presiding over the control panel, have decided that, since Riley was happy only in Minnesota, she should catch the next bus and head back there.

There is a lot more action in Inside Out than in anything written by Damasio or even Sacks. But that doesn’t mean neuroscience doesn’t have its own drama. It remains an academic minefield. Keltner is very much a partisan, solidly on one side of a deep divide, as is Inside Out. The film is billed as a “major emotion picture,” so it is not surprising that “thought” is pretty much a bad word throughout. Abstract Thought is a danger zone where everything gets deconstructed into geometric shapes. The Train of Thought that is supposed to take Joy and Sadness home suffers a train wreck when it tries to run on a crumbling core memory island. Anyone who thinks that thinking alone will save us is in for a rude awakening.

This point, gentle and whimsical in Inside Out, has a different flavor in Damasio’s now-classic Descartes Error, but the thrust is much the same. Damasio takes on the famous Cartesian dictum — “I think therefore I am” — saying in no uncertain terms that it “illustrates precisely the opposite of what I believe to be true about origins of mind.” He continues:

Long before the dawn of humanity, beings were beings. At some point in evolution, an elementary consciousness began. With that elementary consciousness came a simple mind; with greater complexity of mind came the possibility of thinking […] For us then, in the beginning, it was being, and only later was it thinking. And for us now, as we come into the world and develop, we still begin with being, and only later do we think.

Descartes has put the cart before the horse. Assigning primacy and priority to thinking and making it our defining attribute, he has gotten things exactly backwards and, doing so, has obscured a far more fundamental part of the human mind: our emotions. According to Damasio, it was not thinking but feeling that showed up first when our ancestors did. And for us now, it is not thinking but feeling that provides “the bridge between rational and nonrational processes, between cortical and subcortical structures,” making us what we have always been and will always be: “a biologically complex but fragile, finite, and unique organism.”

That is what Riley is in Inside Out, as indeed anyone would be, with those five emotions at the control panel. And it might not be a bad thing, the movie suggests. Keltner is emphatic that emotions serve a key evolutionary function; having them tussling inside our heads might not be reassuring, but they are nonetheless there to protect us. “In our culture, we’re tough on sadness,” he says, “but it’s a powerful trigger for seeking comfort and bonding,” while “anger is often about the sense of being treated unfairly, and can be a motivator for social change.” As for Docter, giving emotions their due is just a pragmatic way of coming to terms with what might otherwise seem inexplicable in others. “All these emotions are kind of programmed and act below your conscious threshold,” he says. “Making a little more sense of this made me realize, in a way, to cut people a little more slack.” There will always be oddities in other people that we will never be able to think our way through, just as there will always be oddities in ourselves that will be forever beyond our comprehension. They make us what we are.


Wai Chee Dimock is the William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University.