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The science of awkward puberty brain from ‘Inside Out 2’

by News7

Disney and Pixar’s newest film dives headfirst into the ‘gawky’ minds of teens.

Posted on Jun 12, 2024 3:00 PM EDT

So, who’s in charge here? Disney and Pixar’s “Inside Out 2” returns to the mind of newly minted teenager Riley. Emotions Anger, Fear, Joy, Sadness, and Disgust must make room for new Emotions, including Envy, Anxiety, and Embarrassment. © 2024 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

A blaring, red alarm in the teenage brain announces that puberty is coming in hot and startles the audience at a screening of the new Disney and Pixar film Inside Out 2. Even without the jarring noise and flashing light, the word “puberty” and its implications are enough to spark fear for anyone who remembers being young or cares for someone in or about to enter the turbulent teenage years. 

Inside Out (2015) demonstrated why we need all of our emotions, even our most melancholy ones. In the sequel out this week, life is getting even more complicated as Riley (Kensington Tallman) is on the precipice of puberty. Her emotional Headquarters becomes home to some brand new emotions: Anxiety (Maya Hawke), Ennui (Adèle Exarchopoulos), Envy (Ayo Edebiri), and Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser). 

This new crew meets with the familiar Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Tony Hale), Disgust (Liza Lapira), and Anger (Lewis Black) in helping Riley navigate the world around her. The childhood lesson that we need to feel sad in order to feel joy is put to the ultimate test as her rocky teenage years begin. 

Puberty and the ‘gawky brain’

In the film, Riley is 13-years-old, still playing hockey, and preparing for high school. The timing worked out well for Tallman, as she was living a parallel life with the character she was playing. 

“I worked on Inside Out 2 from the ages of 13 to 15,” Tallman tells Popular Science. “The emotions Riley was feeling were the emotions that I was feeling. When I read my lines, I would write down which emotion(s) were driving.”

Riley’s more familiar emotions are surprised by a major reconstruction project happening at Headquarters, complete with a construction crew, wrecking ball and “pardon our dust, puberty is messy,” sign. 

[Related: Adolescent chimpanzees might be less impulsive than human teens.]

“Her brain is underway with a spectacular renovation process,” Lisa Damour, an adolescent psychologist who was a scientific advisor on the film, tells Popular Science. “It is becoming more efficient. It is developing new ways of understanding the world.”

At this age, the brain and its emotions are also becoming more sophisticated and complex. In order to gain this higher level of cognition, the brain creates new connections. It is “pruning neurological dead weight,” and even changing up the order that these neurological connections in the brain develop.  

“It remodels in the order in which the brain originally developed, which is from the back to the front,” says Damour. “The emotion systems are in the back, the perspective maintaining systems are in the front.”

New emotions including Anxiety, Envy, and Embarrassment take their place in a freshly renovated and expanded Headquarters. CREDIT: © 2024 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved. Pixar

For Riley, this change-up means she has what Damour calls a “gawky brain.” The emotion centers have been upgraded, but the brain’s perspective systems aren’t quite ready just yet, so it’s a little disjointed.  

In one scene, Riley gets unexpectedly angry at her mom and has a surprisingly strong reaction. All of the other emotions are yelling at Anger asking what he did. He characteristically responds that he barely touched Riley’s emotional control console at Headquarters. 

“It’s a comical and accurate depiction of the experience of the 13-year-old. Who is like, ‘where did that come from and why is it so powerful?’” says Damour. “And it also shows the adults on the receiving end, who are like, ‘where did that come from? And why is it so powerful?’”


The initial reaction to these new and more potent emotions is to fear, ignore, or try to control them. They can be frightening for teens and frustrating for adults and those around them. But while it’s understandable to want them to go away, they do have a purpose.

“We need the emotions, they help our minds, but I think the big insight in this one is the transition to early adolescence,” Dacher Keltner, a psychologist from the University of California, Berkeley who worked as a scientific advisor on both films, tells Popular Science. “For young girls, they move away from the innocent emotions of childhood and it gets serious. Anxiety hits us, shame, embarrassment, envy. We become very caught up in how we compare to other people. The social emotions are about fitting into social groups, collectives, and hierarchies.”

[Related: Social media drama can hit teens hard at different ages.]

As the puberty hormones hit, the brain is transitioning over to emotions that move us into peer groups. These cliques and friend groups are basically societies that mirror the wider world. From an evolutionary perspective, having all of these new, strong, and murky feelings is all practice for fitting into the adult world.

“In our evolutionary history, that’s when we started reproducing,” says Keltner. “It’s when the new generation is starting to have its imprint on what the world looks like.”

New emotions including Anxiety, Envy, and Embarrassment take their place in a freshly renovated and expanded Headquarters. CREDIT: © 2024 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved. Pixar

When hanging out with some high school girls that she really wants to like and accept her, new emotions are thrown into a frenzy, trying to come up with something to say that her peers will like. She second guesses everything and becomes increasingly anxious and embarrassed and at her more youthful answers. That cringey specter of embarrassment at the things that she feels, says, or does follows Riley quite a bit throughout the film. However, embarrassment ultimately serves as a gut check. 

“Embarrassment has its purpose, even though it’s painful,” says Keltner. “We’re signaling to other people, ‘Hey, I made a mistake. Can you forgive me?’ and that is a great lesson for us to appreciate. It has its place in our social lives.”

Part of being human–at any age

Ultimately, the film showcases some of the newer psychological literature on the nature of accepting our emotions as a way to regulate them. Believing that they are uncontrollable can give the feelings too much power, and ultimately make things worse. 

“Suppressing emotions is problematic, but saying ‘Hey, I am going through a period of anxiety, that’s okay, this will pass, this will change,’ because we’re always changing,” says Keltner. “Don’t condemn yourself for feeling embarrassed or anxious. This is just part of development.”

[Related: We shouldn’t disregard the ideas that come from teens’ developing brains.]

Trying to send uncomfortable emotions away to the dark recesses of the brain ultimately doesn’t work. Importantly, the film also shows that being positive or trying to be happy all the time is also futile. 

Riley’s Sense of Self is made up of all of her beliefs. Sadness and Joy deliver key memories to this formative land. CREDIT: © 2024 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved. Pixar

“Mental health is not just about feeling good. It’s about having feelings that fit the situation and managing them well,” says Damour. “It’s so critically important that we help teenagers themselves and their parents understand that getting upset and having uncomfortable emotions is a natural part of being a human being, and especially a teenage human being.”

The messaging around emotional intelligence also comes at an opportune time. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that teen girls and queer youth are facing a serious hopelessness crisis. This understanding that it is natural to not feel happy and content all the time is completely normal is at the film’s heart. It offers a lifelong goal of acceptance to strive for as we all grow up. 

“This film is about embracing yourself inside and out. It also shows us that nobody’s perfect,” says Tallman. “We all make mistakes, and that is what makes us beautiful.”

Inside Out 2 opens in theaters nationwide on June 14. 

Source : Popular Science

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