A Guide to 'Inside Out's' Complex Mind Machine

The emotions at the control panel in ‘Inside Out’ (Disney/Pixar)

Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out, is an undisputed hit, earning $91 million at the box office over the weekend — the animation studio’s highest opening for a non-sequel film. It also happened to be perhaps Pixar’s most complicated film, which means that there were likely many moviegoers who left theaters a bit confused (not to mention charmed and a little bit teary-eyed).

To recap: Inside Out is set almost completely inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, but focuses on the anthropomorphized emotions that run her highly organized and mechanized mind, which resembles a large manufacturing plant. Riley’s emotional headquarters is staffed by Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith) Fear (voiced by Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black).

Co-writer and director Pete Docter and his team developed an impressively advanced structure for the inside of Riley’s head, which we’ve broken down, Q&A style, for those that got a little bit turned around while watching Inside Out.

Obviously, there’s a strong spoiler alert in effect for the rest of this story!

How does Riley’s head make memories, exactly?
It’s very much a two-way system: Once emotions cause Riley to act, the events that follow get sent back to the mind machine. Every definitive event that occurs in Riley’s life becomes a memory, which is stored in an orb that is colored by one of the five core emotions (generally the one that was in control of the console at that time). The orbs stack up throughout the day, and when Riley goes to sleep, they’re all sent to be filed in the Long-term memory, which is an endless maze of memory orbs organized by category. Long-term memory is located in the back of the mind, far beyond the headquarters.

Are all memories created equal, or do some have more importance?
Really important moments in Riley’s life are turned into core memories, whose orbs shine more brightly than regular memories. Those special bright orbs are kept in a special case in the headquarters, and help power different Islands — which, in turn, power different aspects of Riley’s personality. When we meet Riley, the islands include Family Island, Goofball Island, Hockey Island, Friendship Island, and Honesty Island. They look like theme parks, bright and festive, but go dark and crumble without juice from the core memories.

Joy in front of a wall of memories in ‘Inside Out’ (Disney/Pixar)

At the risk of sounding silly, what purpose do Memories serve?
Don’t worry, you don’t sound silly at all — it’s a great question! Both Memories and Core Memories can be recalled to at any time to Headquarters, which uses a projection system to bring them back into the forefront of Riley’s mind. The danger is that if a certain emotion touches it, it could change irrevocably, turning a happy memory into a sad one (example: Fun times with an old friend become bittersweet after you move across the country). The emotions can also insert ideas (which look like discs or lightbulbs) into the console, which inspire Riley to make big decisions and try new things.

Recall tubes send memories back to headquarters, and there’s also a Train of Thought that travels throughout the mind. The Train of Thought has no set path, and carries daydreams, ideas, facts and opinions (which often get mixed up) to headquarters, while also moving memories from one island to another. Oh, and the train only travels only while Riley is awake.

Tell me more about these islands, please.
Well, Imagination Island is particularly important in Inside Out: This is where many elements of Riley’s childhood reside, including her old imaginary friend Bing Bong, and the remains of her pre-school fantasies. It also hosts Dream Productions, where a dedicated team pulls disparate elements of recent Memories and mashes them up to make little sketches that are projected into Riley’s subconscious while she sleeps. Docter hung out behind-the-scenes of Saturday Night Live, at Hader’s invitation, to get a feel for how such a fast-paced

The emotions looking at the Islands of Emotion in ‘Inside Out’ (Disney/Pixar)

That sounds peaceful.
Well, yes… unless they’re producing a nightmare. The Dream Productions are just working off a script based on notes sent by a nameless higher power, which is probably the most Hollywood thing about Inside Out. Also, the studio has the only security guards we see in the movie (there’s also a pair of police officers), and they have the authority to banish elements from bad and rogue Memories (like scary birthday clowns) to a Subconscious jail.

So where’s the danger in all this? What are the stakes?
Well, as we mentioned, Joy and Sadness get accidentally ejected from headquarters, leaving three peripheral emotions — Fear, Anger, and Disgust — to run the show. This causes Riley lots of problems, so Joy and Sadness need to get back pronto. Unfortunately for them, the path isn’t so easy, because the mind is a very treacherous place.

How so?
Memories that Riley no longer needs eventually turn grey and black, and are eventually vacuumed up and sent down the Memory Dump, where they crumble and dissolve and are rendered forgotten forever. Emotions and imaginary friends are not immune to the incineration, either — which poses quite a problem for Joy, Sadness, and Riley’s psyche.

So, what else should I know?
Well, there’s a lot more to the mind machine, because we are advanced and infinitely complicated creatures. While the film doesn’t visit many of them — it’s exhaustive enough as it is — it does include a stop to the Abstract Thought processing plant, which twists hard-to-grasp concepts into smaller, two-dimensional elements so that Riley can more easily understand them.

So, this FAQ is basically an Abstract Thought processing plant?
You’re good!