“Inside Out” and the Science of Memory

The stars of Peter Docter's new movie, "Inside Out"
The stars of Peter Docter’s new movie, “Inside Out”

I have been known to weep at Pixar movies–Monsters, Inc., Toy Story, maybe even Up. It might be because Peter Docter, the very talented Pixar director, is a Bloomington, MN boy. (His mom, Rita Docter, was my kids’ “Angelica” choir director for many wonderful years.) Or, in the specific case of Inside Out, it might be because I’m a sucker for a movie about a kid who’s sad about moving from Minnesota to California.

But I didn’t just weep at Inside Out. I sobbed. While it will surprise few of his fans that Peter Docter has once again gotten it right about childhood–from both a kid’s and a parent’s perspective–in Inside Out he also gets the science right, more or less. Right enough to remind us what a complicated and dangerous and Why did we ever even imagine we could do this right? task it is to raise a child. Right enough to make any sane Mom or Dad (are there any?) sorely afraid to be such an integral part of the memories, the very brains, of these little people who are our kids.

Right from the start of Inside Out, from the minute baby Riley opens her eyes to this world, her memories start forming. I think this is absolutely and terrifyingly true. Soon enough in the movie we see all these little marbles of memory rolling in, stacking, sorting, being categorized. After they collect for the short term and Riley goes to sleep for the night, they’re flushed down to “long-term” memory, catacombs of which look a lot like the folds of the human cerebrum. Some of the long-term memories become “core memories,” the sources of Riley’s “islands of personality”–basically, what makes Riley, Riley.

In this disarmingly simple way, Peter Doctor delivers the toughest truth of parenthood: Everything you do and say matters. Everything.

Sure, some things are eventually forgotten, sucked up by vacuums ridding the brain of unnecessary information (although the technicians, for a laugh, occasionally send advertising jingles right back up to headquarters), and in the specific scene that made me gasp with tears (I won’t spoil it for you), some memories simply fade away. But most are saved and stacked and live forever in the brain of little Riley, and if that weren’t bad enough for imperfect parents everywhere, there’s this: Riley saves them in accordance with her own emotions, the five real stars of the movie: joy, sadness, disgust, fear and anger.

And guess who has the last word about how each of Riley’s memories is colored and even changed by these tumultuous, sometimes contradictory, always passionate feelings? (Hint: it’s not you, Mom and Dad.)

No parent–not a single one of us–does it right all of the time. Or even, God help us, most of the time. I’ve said things and done things to/with my kids I wish they’d never heard or seen. But they’ll remember them–the good and the bad–whether or not I want them to, and in ways I can’t control. It didn’t paralyze me. I got up every morning and tried to do better. But even that, in the end, doesn’t really matter. What matters is what children remember, and how they remember it.

Particularly in the wake of news stories of gun violence and racism and hatred, I feel like I want everyone who’s considering having a kid to watch Inside Out. Watch it, and talk about the real science of memory behind it. Talk about what it means to bring a child into this world, to be responsible for all the many ways a tiny person sees, hears, feels and remembers: Are people kind? Are they patient and fair? Do they protect me? Do they love me, not just in words but in minute-to-minute deeds?

My intent is not to make prospective parents nuts, or wrack them with guilt. Parenting is a big job–too big, really: that’s the truth. If you’re lucky you’ll do some things well and you’ll grow and learn and love more than you ever thought possible. But you’ll also mess up, and often. You’ll be remembered for things you don’t want to be remembered for. Sometimes for good reason.

I’m don’t imagine this was the take-home message that inspired Peter Doctor, nor the one accompanying most people when they left the theater.

But I wish it were. Because everything you do and say matters to a child. Everything.

And if that, and everyone’s heartbreakingly inevitable failure at being a perfect, or sometimes even good-enough parent, weren’t enough to make me sob, just add in this: A few near-perfect memories of days gone by, the ones a parent might hold most dear. Then watch them fade, even disappear, from the brain of a child who’s got her own work to do, her own reality to construct, her own place in the world to discover.







1 Comment

  1. Enjoyed this post and cannot wait to take my kids to this movie. And then I will come back again and reread this because I know I will appreciate it even more!

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