Social and Emotional Learning isn’t just gaining credibility and attention in the national education scene; with new compelling data and new, engaging ways to share it, SEL is popping up more and more in pop culture. Inside Out, Pixar’s latest movie, is a delightful example of this national and global trend.
Based in real neuroscience, Inside Out explores the evolving emotions of Riley, an 11-year-old girl who experiences some challenging life changes. The story largely plays out inside the “control room” of Riley’s brain, in which her lead emotion, Joy, tries to effectively manage the other guiding emotions of Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness. With colorful imagery and a solid scientific background, the film engages the viewer in a deep and intriguing new form of empathy–we are literally in Riley’s head, seeing through her eyes, experiencing her life events with her perspectives and filters. Inside Out underscores the ways emotions color experiences and shape memories on a personal, sometimes visceral level. It winds up being a movie experience that invites self-reflection and the exploration of the viewers’ own emotion-tinged memories.
When I went to see it, I was excited by the Social and Emotional Learning aspects it promised to address. I was surprised and touched by the film’s creativity, authenticity and emotional immediacy. The over-arching story was simple enough to be relatable, and to allow depth and complexity to emerge organically from the interactions of the emotions in Riley’s brain. It also left me with some intriguing questions: What happens to the emotion characters after Riley enters adolescence, that notorious rollercoaster of neurological pruning and emotional development? Why is the mom’s lead emotion Sadness, and the dad’s lead emotion Anger? Will they ever discover pizza other than the organic broccoli pizza place down the street? I can’t wait for the sequel!
I should also mention the traditional Pixar short film that precedes the feature, called Lava. It is also based in actual science, geology this time, and tells a musical love story between volcanoes(!) that takes place over a few million years. (That’s right, it’s a short that takes place over MILLENIA.) Lava had me first laughing, then sobbing(!), then mentally singing the ukulele ballad for days (DAYS!) afterward. Luckily, Inside Out even made a quick reference to why songs get stuck in our head, so now I know why I’ve been singing bits of Lava ever since. Turns out there was a recent study using MRI technology that sheds even more light on the “earworm” phenomenon we are all so familiar with, but I digress.
In conclusion: because Social and Emotional Learning is gaining traction in the pop culture scene, and because Inside Out so beautifully exemplifies this trend, I would like to name Inside Out as the first recipient of the SEL Media Award for Excellence in Bringing Social and Emotional Learning to the Forefront of Popular Consciousness, or SEL-ie Award (for brevity’s sake). Keep your eyes out and suggestions coming in for future SEL-ie Awards, dear Readers! Happy emotional exploration!