homunculusThe homunculus returns? I finally saw Inside Out (possible spoilers – I seem to be talking about films a lot recently). Interestingly, it foregrounds a couple of problematic ways of thinking about the mind.

One, obviously, is the notorious homuncular fallacy. This is the tendency to explain mental faculties, say consciousness, by attributing them to a small entity within the mind – a “little man” that just has all the capacities of the whole human being. It’s almost always condemned because it appears to do no more than defer the real explanation. If it’s really a little man in your head that does consciousness, where does his consciousness come from? An even smaller man, in his head?

Inside Out of course does the homuncular thing very explicitly. The mind of the young girl Riley, the main character, where most of the action is set, is controlled by five primal emotions who are all fully featured cartoon people – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, little people who walk around inside Riley’s head doing the kind of thing people do (Is it actually inside her head? In the Beano’s Numskulls cartoon, touted as a forerunner of Inside Out, much of the humour came from the definite physicality of the way they worked; here the five emotions view the world through a screen rather than eyeholes and use a console rather than levers. They could in fact be anywhere or in some undefined conceptual space.) It’s an odd set (aren’t Joy and Sadness the extremes of a spectrum?) Unexpectedly negative too: this is technically a Disney film, and it rates anger, fear, and disgust as more important and powerful than love? If it were full-on Disney the leading emotions would surely be Happy-go-lucky Feelin’s, and Wishing on a Star.

There are some things to be said in favour of homunculi. Most people would agree that we contain a smaller entity that does all the thinking; the brain, or maybe even narrower than that (proponents of the Extended Mind would very much not agree, of course). Daniel Dennett has also spoken out for homunculi, suggesting that they’re fine so long as the homunculi in each layer get simpler; in the end we get to ones that need no explanation. That’s alright, except that I don’t think the beings in this Dennettian analysis are really homunculi – they’re more like black boxes. The true homunculus has all the capacities of a full human being rather than a simpler subset.

We see the problem that arises from that in Inside Out. The emotions are too rounded; they all seem to have a full set of feelings themselves; they show all show fear and Joy gets sad. How can that work?

The other thing that seems not quite right to me is unfortunately the climactic revelation that Sadness has a legitimate role. It is, apparently, to signal for help. In my view that can’t really be the whole answer and the film unintentionally shows us the absurdity of the idea; it asks us to believe that being joyless, angry and withdrawn, behaving badly and running away are not enough to evoke concern and sympathetic attention from parents; you don’t get your attention, and your hug till they see the tears.

No doubt sadness does often evoke support, but I can’t think that’s its main function. Funnily enough, Sadness herself briefly articulates a somewhat better idea early in the film. It’s muttered so quickly I didn’t quite get it, but it was something about providing an interval for adjustment and emotional recalibration. That sounds a bit more promising; I suspect it was what a real psychologist told Pixar at some stage; something they felt they should mention for completeness but that didn’t help the story.

Films and TV do shape our mental models; The Matrix laid down tramlines for many metaphysical discussions and Star Trek’s transporters are often invoked in serious discussions of personal identity. Worse, fears about AI have surely been helped along by Hollywood’s relentless and unimaginative use of the treacherous robot that turns on its creators. I hope Inside Out is not going to reintroduce homunculi to general thinking about the mind.


  1. 1. Sci says:

    Interestingly enough in the USA hacker show Mr. Robot they talk a lot of about our daemons, which are both subroutines and “demons” directing our behavior.

    A darker take on the idea presented in Inside Out.

  2. 2. Hunt says:

    I do think mental unity is actually broken down into the concurrent expression of several quasi-conscious “things” (therefore, the “illusion of unity”). Call them homunculi, ids, egos, super-egos, whatever. Or simply equal concurrent processes. The evidence I have is the unusual mental states of hypnosis or meditation, where some of the processes seems to “go to sleep” or be repressed, while others become more dominant. Ultimately, each of these must be subject to reduction, so the homuncular idea still answers nothing in a functional sense.

    Inside Out has at least started the process of reduction by including task oriented homunculI, not just one homunculUS at the levers. But as you mention, in order for this to be a valid reduction, the whole must be greater than the sum of the parts. I suspect it wouldn’t have been dramatically compelling.

  3. 3. Intellectual Lusts says:

    They went with Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger as these are five of the six cross-cultural universal emotional responses, (the sixth being surprise, which the film-makers felt wouldn’t be distinguished enough as a character from Fear). They had consultation from such Psych luminaries as Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner.

  4. 4. Intellectual Lusts says:

    Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that toys and cars don’t exhibit characteristics of personhood either. Pixar aren’t trying to provide a theory of consciousness, any more than Finding Nemo is providing an account of clownfish behaviour; they’re telling a story about personified emotions.

  5. 5. Tom Clark says:

    Peter, I take your point, but like Hunt says, at least there wasn’t a single homunculus at the controls. And the emotions competed for control of behavior, such that there wasn’t a contra-causal “decider” in charge, which was good. In fact, looking at the goings-on in the control room, one notices that there is no self in there, yet Riley is a coherent person. So Pixar actually did a good job of implicitly challenging the idea of an indivisible mental self or soul in charge, not that most folks probably noticed that (although Alva Noe did over at the 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, and was upset by it, curiously enough, see http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2015/07/05/419727485/the-awkward-synthesis-that-is-inside-out).

    Emotions that I found missing were envy, pride, shame, guilt, and perhaps awe/wonder (somewhat like surprise I guess). But that would have been too many cooks in the kitchen! The film is extremely well done, highly recommend it, even if it isn’t philosophically or psychologically perfect.

  6. 6. Peter says:

    No, of course, they’re not trying to float a theory, and it’s a bit unfair to critique a kid’s film as though it were one.
    Still, these things influence people’s mental furniture, rather the way we always picture the brain in terms of whatever the most advanced technology of the day is (for Leibniz it was a mill, later on a telephone exchange). I bet we will hear the film mentioned in many relatively serious discussions in the next few years, in a way that’s not their fault, but not really helpful either.

  7. 7. Inside Out | Theories of Mind says:

    […] are people-within-people. Over at the blog Conscious Entities, Peter criticizes the fact that Inside Out’s main characters — Joy, Sadness, Bing Bong […]

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