Jun 23 2015

The Homunculus Problem

I saw Inside Out last night. Its setting is similar in a few ways to the world of Brain City Heroes, but it’s also pretty fundamentally different. Their concepts are based more on introspection and psychology, while my world building takes neuroscience as its starting point. The film raises so many questions about the way we think and feel, but I’m just gonna take one or two for now.

The plot is basically the middle part of Up in a different setting. While neither of the main characters are as well developed as Ed Asner’s Carl Fredricksen in that film, you’re not going to find many conflicts more primal than Joy vs Sadness.

Really, all the interaction between the five main emotions is fascinating. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear are more than archetypes making up the mind of the larger main character, Riley. They’re each strong individuals. That makes the story more fun, but it’s also raises a question I’ve struggled with in Brain City Heroes.

If each of those five emotions are tiny people living inside the “Headquarters” of Riley’s mind, where each one has a separate memory and awareness, what powers their minds? The film is about more than emotions. It shows the endless shelves of Riley’s memories, with countless functionaries needed to sort and maintain them. Does each of those individuals have a similar but smaller world inside them? It’s a recursive problem from a scientific standpoint, known as the homunculus argument.

I know, it’s a parable, not a literal explanation. I had to give my main characters some individuality too, though I fought against it. In the first stories I wrote with them, I tried never to refer to individual body parts on the characters, giving them existence without form. Prose is different than movies, but once I decided to illustrate the stories, I entered the middle ground. Now it’s just the descriptions of memories that lack some concreteness, using the poetic aspects of language to include things like “the memory of sunshine.”

I look forward to having deeper conversations about different metaphors of consciousness as a result of my work and this film, but there was something else I kept asking myself in the theater. Does Riley go to my middle school?

I mean the story is set in San Francisco. Here’s her school, which is never named:

Here’s the middle school I went to, James Lick, in Noe Valley:

Inside Out is a funny, thought provoking movie which scratched the surface of some very complex issues. I had a great time. I can’t wait to go deeper.