Jun 19

“Inside Out”: Animated Kids (and Adults) Identify Emotions

The new and apparently not-to-be-missed Disney Pixar movie Inside Out  is about emotions: most specifically, Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness—the inhabitants of child Riley’s “Headquarters,” her mind’s control center.

Gregory Ellwood, Hitfix: “[Riley’s] birth spurs the creation of the first emotion, Joy (Amy Poehler), but as she grows, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black) arrive to balance out her emotional makeup. Each has a key role to play in Riley’s life, but it’s Joy who diligently makes it her responsibility to command the team and keep her as happy as possible.”

Yes, Joy is usually Riley’s dominant emotion, but when her parents (Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Lane) take their family from the Midwest to San Francisco, she experiences an adjustment crisis of sorts. That’s when other emotions take more control. A.O. Scott, New York Times: “Each one has a necessary role to play, and they all carry out their duties in Riley’s neurological command center with the bickering bonhomie of workplace sitcom colleagues.”

For info about the brain and emotions, the film’s creators consulted various experts. Co-director Peter Docter told NPR they used the emotions model of psychologist Paul Ekman, who long ago had identified a total of six. Docter, however, cut that down to five when he decided that surprise is similar enough to fear.

More about the film’s plot and structure from Jessica Kiang, The Playlist:

…(T)he inner landscape is where the film’s real dizzying imagination and loopy humor comes into play, as Joy voyages through the Long Term Memory (complete with an irritating gum commercial jingle that becomes a recurring joke), crosses terrain like Abstract Thought (where she briefly becomes a Cubist representation of herself, then a 2D collection of shapes, then a line), rides a Train of Thought, and passes divertingly through Dreamland, which is rendered as a movie studio, of course, complete with lovely in-jokey references to Hitchcock. And most touchingly of all, with a sweet nod back to the arc of the ‘Toy Story’ films, she teams up with Riley’s childhood imaginary friend, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), who drives a makeshift rocket powered by song; it’s quite something to sense an entire theater full of hardened film hacks reduced to lachrymose sniffling messes by the fate of a cat/dolphin/elephant hybrid in a silly hat.

Sadness is particularly crucial in Inside Out. “Unless Sadness is acknowledged and is permitted to take the wheel,” states reviewer Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, “there can be no happiness and no growing up.”

Watch a brief clip about Sadness:

Several other clips have also been made available. Here’s one that focuses on Disgust and Anger:

A.O. Scott, New York Times:

‘Inside Out’ is an absolute delight — funny and charming, fast-moving and full of surprises. It is also a defense of sorrow, an argument for the necessity of melancholy dressed in the bright colors of entertainment. The youngest viewers will have a blast, while those older than Riley are likely to find themselves in tears. Not of grief, but of gratitude and recognition. Sadness, it turns out, is not Joy’s rival but her partner. Our ability to feel sad is what stirs compassion in others and empathy in ourselves. There is no growth without loss, and no art without longing.

May 16

Facial Expressions: Reading Emotions Via Observation

Can we read other people’s facial expressions? If so, what exactly can we tell from them?

In 1968 psychologist and behavioral scientist Paul Ekman began to test his hypothesis that faces show us some basic universal emotions—emotions, in other words, that aren’t culturally based or related. His eventual conclusion was that there are indeed six universal emotions: anger, happiness, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear. Since then others have been added to the list.

Incidentally, Ekman was also one of the first to study the reading of micro expressions. From his website:

Micro expressions are very brief facial expressions, lasting only a fraction of a second. They occur when a person either deliberately or unconsciously conceals a feeling. Seven emotions have universal signals: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, contempt, surprise and happiness. You can learn to spot them.

Although Ekman’s theories are popular, they’ve been contested by some, including Lisa Feldman Barrett of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northeastern University, who concludes there’s a lack of universality after all.

When we are to be able to “read” others, a significant factor, Barrett notes, is body language, which assists us in picking up cues from the face. From her recent essay in The New York Times:

If faces do not ‘speak for themselves,’ how do we manage to ‘read’ other people? The answer is that we don’t passively recognize emotions but actively perceive them, drawing heavily (if unwittingly) on a wide variety of contextual clues — a body position, a hand gesture, a vocalization, the social setting and so on.

The psychologist Hillel Aviezer has done experiments in which he grafted together face and body photos from people portraying different emotions. When research subjects were asked to judge the feeling being communicated, the emotion associated with the body nearly always trumped the one associated with the face. For example, when shown a scowling (angry) face attached to a body holding a soiled object (disgust), subjects nearly always identified the emotion as disgust, not anger.

Body language expert Joe Navarro, Psychology Today: “…(T)here are over 215 behaviors associated with psychological discomfort and most of those are not in the face.” Also, interestingly, “…(T)he feet are more accurate than the face in revealing sentiments and intentions and…all of our body is constantly transmitting vital information.”

But this isn’t to say we can’t still have some fun reading faces. At Greater Good, for instance, you can test your “emotional intelligence” by viewing various faces and picking out the matching feeling. Sounds simple enough, I thought, as I proceeded to guess the first example—but I got it wrong and thus had to hang my head in shame (perceived by no one, as I was alone). (Then again, any head-hanging was no doubt unnecessary, keeping in mind that the foundation for some of these tests may be flawed.)

Research regarding a more distinct variation, “compound facial expressions of emotion,” has led to developing even newer quizzes on face readings. From a recent Abstract by Ohio State University:

Past research on facial expressions of emotion has focused on the study of six basic categories—happiness, surprise, anger, sadness, fear, and disgust. However, many more facial expressions of emotion exist and are used regularly by humans. This paper describes an important group of expressions, which we call compound emotion categories. Compound emotions are those that can be constructed by combining basic component categories to create new ones. For instance, happily surprised and angrily surprised are two distinct compound emotion categories.

Check out another quiz at The Guardian. Surprisingly—though maybe I was just trying harder—I did much better this next time around.