Learning about Emotions with Inside Out

By: Shaina Grover

flickr @ BagoGames

Anger, Disgust, Sadness, Fear, and Joy. These are the five primary emotions that live inside Riley’s brain in Pixar’s hit 2015 film, Inside Out. For those who haven’t seen the film, Inside Out is the story of Riley, an 11-year-old girl who’s forced to move away from her life in Minnesota to San Francisco. The movie follows her as she adjusts to living in San Francisco with the help of the five emotions who live in the control center inside her brain.

Now, as you probably already know, our emotions are not actually controlled by people living inside our brains. In reality, our bodies contain a series of networks that interact with our brain in order to tell it how to react.

Let’s now take a look at a few of the five primary emotions, starting with joy. In Inside Out, Joy is a happy-go-lucky girl with blue hair and bright yellow skin. In actuality, there are several chemicals that are responsible for the feeling of happiness we often feel. Whenever we view or interact with something that makes us feel joy, these chemicals are released by several neurotransmitters located throughout the body.

One example of such a neurotransmitter is serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that circulates throughout your blood; scientists have found that higher serotonin levels directly correspond to an increase in one’s feelings of confidence and belonging, both of which often correspond to happiness. Additionally, they also found that more serotonin is released when you are in an environment in which you feel appreciated and important. Dopamine, another neurotransmitter, is well known for making people feel happy. It typically triggers after one has accomplished something, which has earned it the nickname the “reward molecule.” Think back to a time when you felt happy after completing a difficult task or project. The feeling of glee that you experienced in this moment was a direct result of your mind releasing more dopamine into your body. Lastly, there are endorphins, the most well-known neurotransmitter. They relieve pain and are created in the pituitary gland as well as the central nervous system. Endorphins are most commonly released after a physical workout. It is for this same reason that most people feel so accomplished and happy after their workouts.

The exact opposite of joy is sadness. In Inside Out, Sadness mopes around, bringing gloom and doom with her. Fun fact: She’s all blue, which is the opposite of yellow on the color wheel! In all seriousness, studies have shown that when one experiences a consecutive series of negative emotions, whether it be due to a current experience or a resurfacing memory, there is an increased level of interaction between the hippocampus and amygdala—the part of the brain linked to anxiety and fear—indicating that there is a direct connection between negative memories and bad moods. Additionally, increased activity in the right occipital lobe, the left insula, and the left thalamus have all been found to be related to general feelings of sadness.

Now, a common response we associate with feelings of sadness is crying. However, why exactly do we cry when we’re sad? Despite years of research, there is no definitive answer to this question. There have been a variety of theories over the years, with several of them being anything but scientific. Tears and crying have been a concept since about 1,500 BCE! While we don’t have a definitive explanation as to why we cry when we’re sad, we do know that crying essentially acts as a signal for when there is a problem in our lives. In other words, it is an emotional beacon. Furthermore, the release of tears can also serve as a stress reliever. Interestingly, the release of tears can also emit endorphins and oxytocin, both of which are the same neurotransmitters responsible for making you happy in some situations.

Our minds and emotions are undoubtedly complex and difficult to understand. But despite this, they’re not the worst. After all, things could be a lot worse! Just imagine how our lives would be if we actually had little people inside of our heads controlling our emotions; we would all go crazy! Despite all its downsides, maybe it’s for the best that our emotions and feelings are regulated by neurotransmitters!

Question 1: What about fear? Why do we feel excited when we’re scared?

There are many reasons as to why one might feel excited when you’re frightened. For some, the body releases an excessive amount of dopamine when facing a scary situation, which is the chemical that makes you feel good. Moreover, everybody has an “emotional regulator,” which essentially makes sure your emotions are not too extreme and that your body’s reactions are still necessary. In some cases, the fear you are experiencing begins to dissipate because your brain concludes that the situation is no longer threatening — the danger is extinct. During this process, the original feeling of fear is not erased; instead, after learning the new information that there is no danger, it becomes clear to you that you are not in a life-threatening situation and the previous feelings of fear are overridden. However, this does not mean that your body doesn’t still feel fear. You still feel the initial shock, adrenaline, rapid heartbeat, quicker breaths, sharpening of senses, and a burst of strength—but after realizing that there is no real danger, you are able to enjoy the situation because the rush of adrenaline can be exciting.

Question 2: What are the 7 universal emotions?

Although we classify a number of feelings as emotions, there are really only 7 “universal” ones. These are Happiness, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, Anger, Contempt, and Surprise, 5 of which are present in Inside Out. These 7 emotions also have their own distinct facial expressions. Studies show that upon seeing pictures of these 7 facial features, regardless of what culture, the people identified them as the same emotion.













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