The 2015 Pixar film Inside Out depicts an 11 year-old girl named Riley, and how her emotions influence her memories. In the film, memories are depicted as a glowing orb of colors that reflect one of five of the emotions that is linked to said memory; yellow for joy, blue for sadness, red for anger, purple for fear, and green for disgust. The writers of the film deliberately consulted with neuroscientists and psychologists to help make sure that their psychological science was accurate. The film did depict some aspects of memory correctly, however there were still others that missed the mark. The purpose of Inside Out is to illustrate how emotions influence our memories. The film accurately depicts the way in which the two memory systems of Implicit and Explicit memory are connected when events have emotional significance, and the way that working memory and long-term memory function. The film inaccurately depicts the ways in which memories are stored, connected, and forgotten.
Implicit, or procedural, memories are the unconscious memories; things that we are unaware of, such as skills, habits, or reflexes. For example, you can teach a person with amnesia, who cannot make new memories, how to play the piano. Yet, every time you ask them if they can play the piano, they will say that they do not know how to play the piano, and that this is their first time ever playing the piano. In the film, we see the emotions pulling up past memories of Riley playing hockey and ice skating with her family as she is about to play hockey in real life. This shows how her memories from the past are implicitly recalled when she is about to engage in a task that requires them, even unconsciously. Explicit, or declarative, memories are conscious memories; things that we are aware of, such as facts and events. For example, I explicitly remember that last week I took a quiz in this class. In the film, when Riley is talking to her class about a specific time back home, she recalls that specific event in her mind episodically as well, meaning that she can visualize the storyline of the memory. Recalling information from explicit memory requires conscious awareness that that event has occurred. These two processes can be distinct, but they can also be connected. Attaching emotions to an event gives that explicit memory some context, which also makes it stronger. This is the principle behind deep-processing; that associating meaning with emotions makes the association stronger and more likely to be recalled. This idea is demonstrated in the film when Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong says that memories “fade” when Riley doesn’t care about them anymore. We see in the film that memories that aren’t linked with strong emotions do in fact seem to “fade” until they are discarded and forgotten. This process of forgetting is inaccurate but will be discussed later. For now, the point of this argument is that memories without emotional attachment, or shallow-processing, are not as strong and therefore are not recalled as frequently and will have a harder time being retrieved from long-term memory.
Our brains are always in working memory and never in long-term memory. Working memory is the active memory system of everything that is going on at the moment. It keeps knowledge in mind for cognitive functions like learning and reasoning, enabling us to compare and contrast information. Working memory is limited in duration and capacity; it goes away quickly and requires rehearsal to be maintained. Long-term memory is memory that is stored to be recalled later. This type of memory has a seemingly unlimited duration and capacity. The film depicts working memory as the initial formation of memories that occurs in “headquarters,” where her emotions live, as events occur. The film accurately depicts that we encode events from our daily life without a deliberate intention to learn or remember them. Long-term memory is depicted as being stored at the end of the day during sleep. Each night, when Riley goes to sleep, the “headquarters” shuts down and the memories from that day all get sucked up through a vacuum tube to be sent to be encoded in long-term memory. The principle of the interaction between working memory and long-term memory is accurate. During the day, we use our working memories to keep track of small tasks and facts. It’s only once we enter deep sleep that our brains really cement some of the most important memories for much longer. However, this is not entirely how memory works.
Memories are not stored as individual pieces of thought that sit on their own, they are processed by separate systems for basic cognitive functions. Vision, hearing, language, emotion and more are all processed in different places and are connected. Visual components are processed by the visual system, auditory components by the auditory system, emotional components by the limbic system. Memories are stored in bits and pieces all over your brain and are all related to one another. There is no globe sitting on a shelf that can be retrieved and used to reproduce the event exactly as it happened. Memories are stored in component parts. When we retrieve a memory, we reconstruct it from those component pieces. Each individual memory shares features with many other memories; such as the processing components that encode each element, details like who was there, where and when the event occurred, and abstract themes like spiritual experiences and professional accomplishments. The film tries to capture our ability to identify overarching themes and causal connections among our memories by showing how “core memories” fuel aspects of Riley’s personality. This symbol is used in vain, however, because rather than depicting memory as collections of interrelated memories, this depiction emphasizes individual memories. Although we may have specific self-defining memories, our memory is less like a book shelf and more like a web of intertwined memories that interact together.
The process of forgetting is also depicted inaccurately. The memory orbs are shown as becoming less colorful and more dim as they have been in long-term memory longer without being retrieved. They eventually turn dark and gray and are sent to the “memory dump” where they turn to dust and disappear forever. This idea of concurrent with the decay theory of forgetting, which suggests that time leads to permanent loss of information. This is a common but unsupported theory that has been much debated and criticised by psychologists, however. Now, they tend to think of forgetting more as a temporary lapse in memory. There is prevalent research that supports the idea that although some information cannot be recalled at will, there is still evidence of prior learning. The information may come to mind with the right cue, or it may be more quickly recognized, or it may take less time to re-learn that information. Full-fledged memories may fade, but they leave some trace behind.
Inside Out depicts memory accurately in some ways, but it can still be misleading in others. The writers did a good job with depicting implicit and explicit memory as distinct processes that work together with emotions to create a stronger memory. They also properly depicted working memory and the basic functions of long-term memory. Unfortunately, they were less accurate at depicting the specific ways that memories are stored and connected in long-term memory as well as the process of forgetting. All in all, the film is still impressive in their efforts to maintain accuracy.