Inside Out (and Upside Down)

“It’s a charming movie. It is also distinctly American.”

That’s the assessment of Tanya Luhrmann in the New York Times recently. (See her column here.) I like that way of putting it, because all the things I disliked about the movie, when Bette and I went to see it, were things I took to the theater with me.

I have, for example, a model of “how selves work.” Every model that has any aspirations to adequacy will need to deal with what we intend, what we think, how we feel, and what we do. You can subdivide those further if you like. The principal variations among the models of selfhood are formed by putting one or the other of those elements in first place or by rearranging the means by which they might be related to each other. [1]

For my own system, I put intention first. I am more interested, for instance, in the effects that our intentions have on our thinking than I am in how our thinking affects our intentions. Or, for a jargony summary, conation drives cognition more than cognition drives conation. [2]

Inside Out 3So Bette and I go to a movie—it’s a well done and really cute movie—that eliminates three of our elements. It won’t spoil anything, I am sure, to tell you that the five principal characters are a pre-adolescent girl’s five emotions: fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and joy. Although you would think it sometimes when you are seeing it, the movie is not about Riley, the young girl. It is about those five emotions. The girl herself is just an artifact, a product, of the interactions of those emotions.

If you go to the movie understanding that the movie is about the emotions—the personifications of the emotions—themselves and not about the humans, you will be OK. There is a lot of very acute, research-based understanding of our emotions built into the movie, thanks in part to the professional consultants. [3] You can see their New York Times article here.

So I’m not quibbling about the emotions part. But where is everything else? It would be fair, I suppose, (misleading, but fair) to say that Riley has no emotions. The emotions, rather, have her. Or they ARE her.

Inside Out 2But Riley has no intentions—the part that is most important to me; the part that very largely defines what we think and feel and do. You could almost say she doesn’t “have” those other elements either, although the pictures they show you of Riley’s life do show her acting and thinking. But check the cast of characters: all of the emotions are “voiced,” as we say about animated characters. None of the other elements of selfhood are voiced.

Of course, you say. That’s because it’s a movie about emotions. But that means that it is not a movie about persons and it looks like a movie about persons. Riley and her parents, for instance, have the classic spat at the dinner table that ends with “Go to your room!” What was the father intending, you might ask, by saying such a thing to a daughter overwhelmed with sadness and then, momentarily, with anger. Ask it of another movie. The father doesn’t “intend” in this movie, no does any other person. The emotions do, of course.  Anger was dominating the father’s console at the time.  (Joy is controlling it in the picture of the console above.)

So there’s my own private struggle with the movie. “Charming,” as Luhrmann says, but “distinctly American.” This is the way Americans have come to view the self. According to  Luhrmann, “…there is something deeply cultural about the way this mind is imagined,.” We think of minds this way, and that it has consequences for the way we experience thoughts and feelings. She gives examples from China and from southern India that show other people “imagining their minds” in different ways. But Europeans  also “imagine the mind” in ways that are different from the way Americans do it.  That’s one of the reasons that the Netherlands winds up year after year and one of the happiest nations in the world.

One result, Luhrmann thinks, is that Americans are notably anxious. A 2002 survey by the World Mental Health Survey found that “Americans were the most anxious people in the 14 countries studied, with more clinically significant levels of anxiety than people in Nigeria, Lebanon and Ukraine.” Nigeria? Lebanon? Ukraine? Don’t they read the newspapers? Surely they should be more anxious than we are! But, apparently they are not. At least, they weren’t in 2002. If you think things have gotten better since 2002, you haven’t been reading the same reports I have.

Inside Out 4Luhrmann reports that “Americans are a pretty anxious people. Nearly one in five of us — 18 percent — has an anxiety disorder.We spend over $2 billion a year on anti-anxiety medications.” She thinks it has something to do with how we imagine the mind.

“Our high anxiety,” she concludes, “whatever the challenges we face, is probably one of the consequences” of this way of understanding ourselves.

Speaking only for myself, I want to say that I don’t like those consequences. If thinking of ourselves—how we actually operate as selves—in this “emotions-first” way helps to drive unprecedented numbers of us to antidepressants, then I think we should be looking around for another way to think about how we work.

I have one in mind, of course, but we are w-a-a-a-y too deep in this essay to start on it. I’ll just say this. If you make it a practice to pay attention to what you are trying to do and to pay particular attention (not exclusive attention) to the times you are unable to do it successfully, you will learn a great many useful things about yourself. If you are willing to think about just why, in each of those instances, you were unable to achieve what you were intending, you will learn even more about yourself. It’s amazing. Trust me on that. [4]

.[1] I suspect that what looks to me, at this stage, like a disagreement between Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) and Walter Mischel (The Marshmallow Test) is a disagreement how the various elements work as a system. So Haidt’s metaphor, the rider and the elephant, and Mischel’s “hot systems and cool systems” might be different ways of saying the same thing. So far, it looks to me like a disagreement.
[2] Conation, the faculty of willing to do something, is either an archaic word or a word that was in a brief eclipse when I was in grad school. That was when I really needed it and it took me a long time to find it. Maybe it will get popular again. It comes into English directly from the Latin conari, “to attempt.”
[3]Dacher Keltner is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. Paul Ekman is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco.

[4]  I just made a collection of my former students smile.  They spent an entire term on that paragraph and when the recognize it here, they will turn to their current colleagues and say, “You’re not going to believe this.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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