The Selfless ‘Inside Out’: Not a Problem

I’d like to take a moment to respond to Alva Noë’s piece “The Awkward Synthesis That Is ‘Inside Out'” on NPR’s Cosmos and Culture, which I think misrepresents Pixar’s film. I’m sympathetic to Noë’s reactions…I’m just not sure Noë saw the same film I did.


I should start by noting that Noë isn’t reviewing Inside Out, nor am I. If you’re looking for that, check out the always-eloquent A. O. Scott on Noë’s main contention is that the film never gets around to portraying characters, and in fact presents people as zombie-like automatons. He writes:

In a way, that’s the movie’s real point. Life’s true dramas, it is implied, are internal and there’s little more to dad or mom or place than the role these play in triggering events inside of Riley — or inside each of us. And that, finally, is where the movie falls flat. It purports to the be the story of a girl, but in fact there is no girl character in the film. Riley is not a person, she is a robot, a complicated vessel whose actions and intentions are controlled by persons — emotions and memory workers — inside of her. Riley is no more an agent in her own right than is, say, a ship an agent in its own right. Or, to change the image, she is like a puppet controlled by the team working in headquarters: She is empty.

As I understand Noë’s point, he’s objecting to the portrayal of 11-year-old Riley’s emotions as the drivers of the human vehicle, linking that portrayal to outdated notions of the homunculus, the ‘self’ as the pilot of the ship that is the body (Noë points to Descartes as an originator of this idea). Noë objects that in contemporary cognitive science, the homunculus is grafted on to Hume’s notion that there is no essential ‘self’ and that we are in fact just a collection of cognitive abilities: emotions, perceptions, instincts, etc. Noë continues:

Contemporary cognitive science combines these two ideas in a most awkward synthesis: We are the brain, which in turn is modeled not as a self, but as a vast army of little selves, or agencies, whose collective operations give rise to what looks, from the outside, like a single person or animal; but, so the “Awkward Synthesis” would have it, some of the events happening inside of us really are ours, they really are experienced, and this is because they happen in a special way or in a special place — in what Dennett has called the Cartesian Theater.

This description does indeed fit Inside Out on the surface. On the outside we see Riley endure a family move from Minnesota to San Francisco: the long car ride west, the dingy new home, the awkward first day at a new school. There’s not a lot of action here. Inside, we see Riley’s basic emotions–Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear–the production of her memories, the storage of old memories and ‘core’ memories, locations that represent features of her personality, even a cotton-candy-composed imaginary friend. There is, however, no Riley inside Riley. The emotions refer to Riley, but she has no internal representative, and her external actions are cued by the team of emotions via a control panel before a very Cartesian theater screen, upon which can be shown both Riley’s current perceptions and past memories, stored by glass marbles that, when hit by light, project those memories upon the screen. The metaphor of the mind’s eye as a theater is very active here, as are the phrases ‘losing your marbles’ and ‘the train of thought.’

Noë concludes, “I’m surprised that Docter and the brilliant creators at Pixar don’t seem to appreciate that that there is something downright terrifying about this nihilistic conception of ourselves as zombie puppets living in a confabulated universe.” Does anyone besides Noë experience terror about the picture Inside Out paints of the mind? Certainly, the ‘awkward synthesis’ that Noë sees in cognitive science could lead to terrifying conclusions, if it is a valid objection to cognitive science. But that’s a discussion to be had about cognitive science, not about Inside Out, which never purports to be a definitive depiction of the mind. Noë is using the film as an excuse to question the underpinnings of cognitive science and then masking that as a review of the film:

If you measure the success of a movie not so much by how entertaining and truthful it is, but rather by the opportunity for energetic critical thinking that it affords, then Inside Out is a successful movie indeed. I fear — and the critical reception so far seems to back this up — that audiences will fall for the movie’s uncritical ideology of the self as made up of little selves who are pulling the strings inside and, also, the wool over our eyes.

What Noë doesn’t do is offer an alternative: how should Inside Out have portrayed the self? To my knowledge, neither philosophy nor cognitive science has offered a good answer to that question yet. And lest Noë throw the baby out with the bathwater, here’s a brief list of things that the film gets right about the mind:

  • Basic emotions: The role of the basic emotions in everyday experience is paramount, and emotions do indeed form the backdrop of all our actions. See Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error. (Typically there are six basic emotions, not five, though the count is contentious. Surprise didn’t make the cut, though Bing-Bong’s lapel flower has six color-coordinated petals that gesture toward the full committee of emotions.)
  • Emotional memory: The emotions we feel in a moment are part and parcel of how we remember that moment, and moments are rarely ‘monochromatic.’ Our emotions are often a blend of the basic six, something the film makes clear by the end.
  • Sadness isn’t a mental health issue: imbalance is! Oddly enough, this is old wisdom: Aristotle’s moderation and Renaissance humoral theory come to mind, for a start. The film beautifully critiques the contemporary American belief that happiness is a right and an expected status quo. The pursuit of happiness is a right, but actually having such happiness at all times is an unrealistic expectation that stigmatizes a broad swathe of emotional experiences. Sadness, or melancholy, is as valuable as happiness. See John Milton’s paired poems ‘Il Penseroso’ and ‘L’Allegro.’

Perhaps Pixar’s Inside Out fails in representing the self, but in the absence of any superior, definitive representation of the mind, I’ll take the cultural work that Inside Out is accomplishing. See it if you haven’t.

And bring a hankie.


Cognitive Disability as Straw Man

I’d like to point to two articles that have been trending on Facebook in recent weeks to point to a common thread I’ve seen in conversations about ‘mental illness.’ I’m using scare quotes here because the phrase ‘mental illness’ is itself problematic, for it implies that any deviation from statistically normal human cognition (called neurotypicality) is a disease, a problem for society, and something that can (and should) be fixed. Furthermore, the monolith of ‘mental illness’ stands in for arguments about other issues: priorities in higher education, freedom of speech, gun control, racism. ‘Mental illness’ is invoked to distract from other issues, and in the process actual cognitive disability is ignored.

brain gear

First, conversations about mass shootings often make this rhetorical move:

It’s Not About Mental Illness

In this article (or perhaps rant), Arthur Chu takes recent media coverage of the Charleston, South Carolina shooting to task for characterizing the suspect Dylann Roof as ‘mentally ill’ rather than as motivated by racism. I’m not convinced that mass shooters are never or rarely mentally ill. See Adam Lankford’s research on the topic. What I find compelling about Chu’s essay is the following:

“What’s also interesting is the way “The real issue is mental illness” is deployed against mass murderers the way it’s deployed in general — as a way to discredit their own words. When you call someone “mentally ill” in this culture it’s a way to admonish people not to listen to them, to ignore anything they say about their own actions and motivations, to give yourself the authority to say you know them better than they know themselves.”

Cognitive disability is probably a contributing factor for such shootings, but that doesn’t make it the only or the primary factor. In addition, any relationship between cognitive disability and violence should lead us to care more for such issues, not to stigmatize the cognitively disabled. The stigma against ‘mental illness’ causes more harm than the illnesses themselves, and that stigma is being used to distract from pressing issues about racism and gun control.

Conversations about trigger warnings in higher education often employ this same rhetorical strategy:

Ovid’s Metamorphoses Now Deemed Too “Triggering” for Students at Columbia

To quote from the student complaint referenced in this post:

“During the week spent on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the class was instructed to read the myths of Persephone and Daphne, both of which include vivid depictions of rape and sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual assault, the student described being triggered while reading such detailed accounts of rape throughout the work. However, the student said her professor focused on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery when lecturing on the text. As a result, the student completely disengaged from the class discussion as a means of self-preservation. She did not feel safe in the class. When she approached her professor after class, the student said she was essentially dismissed, and her concerns were ignored.”

Assuming this student account is a complete retelling of the experience–which is a big assumption, I know–I think the professor made two key missteps: 1) underplaying the real trauma of rape in the text; and 2) dismissing a student’s concerns.

In my view, trigger warnings are an issue of disability; they’re words, topic, images that, due to a person’s pre-existing experiences, trauma, or mental health cause them to react to the world differently from other human beings. To be blunt, telling a person to ‘not be triggered’ is the equivalent of telling someone with social anxiety to ‘not worry,’ or encouraging a person in a wheelchair to suck it up and take the stairs anyway.

‘Safety’ in the classroom shouldn’t mean class discussions without mention of rape, violence, racism, etc. It should mean that accommodations are made for disability when it’s a legitimate concern. To continue the wheelchair metaphor, don’t demolish every multi-level building on campus, but please do build the ramps and elevators some people need.

However, many conversations about trigger warnings, as with many conversations about mass shootings, don’t seem to be about cognitive disability at all. Trigger warnings, which should be a therapeutic tool, have instead become the motto of a safe, unchallenging classroom that does not present students with challenging texts and situations. Such a classroom is the justified fear of faculty members that see how college has been turned into a commodity and students are now customers. Customers with potentially career-ending complaints. But such a fear has little to nothing to do with the actual purpose of trigger warnings: to help accommodate the cognitively disabled, those scarred by trauma or some misfortune of brain chemistry.

Real conversations about cognitive disability can and should be happening, but while the stigma of ‘mental illness’ is coopted by other discourses as a rhetorical tool those conversations are shackled.