Podcast of this article:
Don and I rarely have time to go to the movies, let alone a children’s movie. Last week we ventured into the theatre to see Disney and Pixar’s new film, Inside Out. In it, the film explores the roller coaster of emotions that the protagonist, an 11 year old girl named Riley, experiences when her parents uproot her from her secure home in Minnesota to move to San Francisco. Riley’s emotions, in the form of five characters – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust – control Riley’s behavior from her “head quarters”. As she navigates through her new world, the tensions and struggles these emotional “characters” encounter show us the basis for Riley’s behavior. The film is charming, fast-paced, and well written, and very useful in showing how little control we actually have over our somatic self.
Are emotions little people in your head? The Somatic Self.
Contrary to our obsession with the brain, we are not just minds on a stick. The body matters, a lot. Even defining what an emotion is turns out to be a complex task. Though the filmmakers chose five “primary” emotions, different theorists have different ideas about what constitutes a “primary” emotion and why.
For example, http://changingminds.org/explanations/emotions/basic%20emotions.htm shows the lists of several theorists.
Where do emotions occur and how do we know we are experiencing them? For example,where is this emotion being expressed? Felt? Experienced?
When you look at this picture, what do you experience? Do you find yourself slightly mimicking the facial expression (probably without being aware that you do so)? Do you feel a bit of that sadness yourself?
Compare your response to this image:
A little different? Little Anjo is engaged in a full body expression of joy. And the effect on you as an observer is different also.
These photos show that emotion is a whole body process, including the brain. Researchers such as Jaak Panksepp, aka, the Rat Tickler, have studied the physiological and evolutionary basis for emotion in animals and people. As he puts it, “primary processes, based in deep subcortical regions, manifest evolutionary memories that are the basic emotional operating systems of the brain.” (Panksepp, 2013) He coined the term, affective neuroscience to describe his field of study and identified seven primary emotions, some of which had a starring role in the movie: play (Joy in the movie), panic/grief (Sadness), Fear (starring as Fear, of course), rage (Anger), seeking, lust, and care. Other researchers, such as Ekman and Cordaro, Levenson, and Izard (Tracy and Randles, 2011) also include disgust as an emotion. In the movie, Riley’s character of Disgust serves to keep her safe from such vile and dangerous substances as broccoli.
Since neuroscience has repeatedly demonstrated that the embodied, somatic self is focused on survival, and responds faster than the conscious mind can intervene, the premise of the movie becomes clear. Our emotions rule us rather than the other way around as humorously illustrated in this clip where Disgust and Joy battle over whether or not a dropped grape was picked up within five seconds and is safe to eat. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5rAqANyjis We learn basic emotional programs – brain and body responding together to cues in the environment – before we can talk.
These emotional programs don’t emerge in a vacuum. Because we are social creatures the meaning of our responses is in part a social signal in a relational system. We have learned for instance, that the touch of a loved one can reduce pain. http://tedxtalks.ted.com/search/?search=James+Coan
Jaak Panksepp found that even rats could tell when a human was enjoying the tickling episodes he is famous for: “We tried to get tickle machines—they were nothing like the human hand. Tickling has to be done in a joyful way.” And, “the tickle is a way to the social bond in the rat—a friendship bond. That’s part of the function of play.” (2012, p. 66)
SocialSoma – Social Me
As family constellation facilitators, it’s interesting to notice the systemic links between characters. Based on the color coding of the characters used in the movie, Riley’s mother’s main control emotion character was sadness. Her father’s main control emotion character was anger. [Spoiler Alert!] As it comes out in the movie, the daughter felt obligated to show “joy”. By having Joy run Riley’s “console” she served as a balance between her father’s Anger and her mother’s Sadness. In other words, the three of them functioned as a more balanced system than any one of them alone. If our relationships have flexibility, when we are sad, someone will cheer us up, and vice versa. Then our ability to offer each other different emotional states is a plus. However, in Riley’s case, the system may have become somewhat rigid, as the father says when he calls her his “happy girl.” And, when she wasn’t joyful at the move to San Francisco, the loss of her best friend and her favorite surroundings, then tension between Sadness and Joy within her lead to problems in her ability to regulate her emotions and behavior. Social cues–like a question from her mother about her first day of school, that she would have responded to using familiar patterns without thought–now failed her in the new context, leading to conflict in the family system. When Riley could finally allow herself to step out of role and express her sadness, resolution was possible not only for her, but also for her parents. They, too, could express their sadness around the loss of treasured experiences from their original home in Minnesota.
What the movie didn’t show, and what I would hope that Riley would develop, is the addition of mind to emotion, of consciousness to soma. A number of therapeutic models address this directly. For example, in Voice Dialogue, the development of a “self-aware ego” creates an inner awareness and perspective on the emotional parts that are running the self. There are no bad parts. Parts come into being as a solution to a problem, sometimes choosing one symptom over something that appears to be worse. These parts are more complex than the primary emotions shown in the movie, though they may often tend to be dominated by one or two primary emotions. For example a boy who lost his father at age eight, may have a pocket of unresolved grief that has a strong feeling of sadness. As an adult he may experience this as anxiety whenever he gets into a situation where a significant loss is possible. Unpacking the anxiety (Fear in the movie’s terms) will reveal the deeper emotion of sadness and the confusion of loss.
Another system that allows these parts to speak with each other is Internal Family Systems. IFS visualizes these younger internal parts as competing sub-selves within the person and proposes the development of a “Self” to provide a meta or broader based view to the sub-selves. IFS proposes the sub-selves are in relationship – competing inside your head to see who will dominate, as was illustrated beautifully in the movie. From either the self-aware ego or the Self, another perspective is possible. It is like being able to stand back and have a look at the parts that are carrying the memories or, as in Riley’s case, struggling to resolve a difficult situation.
Interestingly constellation work very quickly places people into a meta position. Simply by selecting a “focus” or asking a person to choose a representative for themselves, they are positioned meta to themselves. For the first time, they may be able to see themselves within their relational system. From this perspective, it’s easier to see other’s perspectives as well. One of the strengths of constellation work is the seamless way it invites clients into a place where they can look at their story rather than through the characters in their head. Even inner parts can be placed on the floor enabling internal conflicts to be voiced and resolved.
What are the take-aways from this view of Inside Out?
Emotions aren’t just little characters in our head. Our “emotions” are whole brain-body experiences that interact with our environment and are social in nature. For example, the changes in Riley’s environment and the loss of her sense of self in that context, led her to experience Sadness and loss of Joy in her new environment. Self is an interactive process between our body-brain-being and the world we are engaged with.
Many of the processes we use to regulate our feelings and behavior are triggered quickly and happen outside of conscious awareness. We can bring mindfulness and awareness to those experiences with some practice and begin to unpack the assumptions and beliefs that drive them. For instance, Riley believed she was not allowed to experience or express Sadness, and when she was able to allow herself to express her sadness to her parents at the loss of her familiar home, she found that was not true.
When our emotions are in conflict, we need a way to get a look “Inside Out” in order to help us give voice to parts that may be suppressed, like Sadness was for Riley, and discover the appropriate response for our situation. The somatic-systems approach of constellation work enables us to get a “one-step removed” view of ourselves in our relational situation. This allows us to look at our situation from a view outside of our story rather than through or embedded within in our subjective view. This perspective shift happens quickly in the systemic-somatic approach of constellation work. It helps us to change our story in small but significant ways that often alter the meaning and function of important relationships or events in our lives. (For a whole exploration of how changing our view of our situation can change the meaning of past experiences and expectations of the future, see Wilson, T. (2011). Redirect: Changing the stories we live by. Little, Brown & company.)
In my next post, I will explore a method that taps into the wisdom of the somatic self and enrolls our adult self to help our traumatized inner child to re-source and re-pattern the original trauma. It’s also a process you can use with yourself. (Please note this process is for those experiencing moderate dysregulation from trauma, not for severe trauma situations.)
References & Citations:
• Pouting photo: http://susan-ng.hubpages.com/hub/How_to_Deal_With_Separation_Anxiety
• Laughing photo: Anjo, http://photography.tutsplus.com/articles/100-toddler-shots-to-improve-your-family-photography--photo-2963
• Weintraub, P., (2012). The Man Who Makes Rats Laugh: Jaak Panksepp. Discover Magazine. Thursday, May 31, 2012.
• Tracy, J. & Randles, D., (2011). Four Models of Basic Emotions: A Review of Ekman and Cordaro, Izard, Levenson, and Panksepp and Watt. Emotion Review. 3:397. http://emr.sagepub.com/content/3/4/397
• http://tedxtalks.ted.com/search/?search=Jaak+Panksep Panksepp