Psychologist behind 'Inside Out' speaks at semester's first University Lecture

Dacher Keltner's work in studying compassion and human psychology led to his contribution in developing the emotional characters starring in the 2015 Disney Pixar film.

Upon learning that Dacher Keltner consulted Pixar for the 2015 film Inside Out on how to accurately portray emotions, people — including adults — ask him about their own feelings.

“I had grown men coming to me when they found out that I was just remotely involved,” Keltner said. “[They would say] ‘You’re part of Inside Out? It changed my life! So, you’re telling me it’s okay to be sad?’”

Photo: Danielle Gehman

Keltner works as the director of the Social Interaction Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley and faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley. During his talk Tuesday night as part of Syracuse University's University Lecture series, he brought up a point that resonated with a lot of people — it is okay to be sad.

Embracing your negative emotions is one way people can become more compassionate, Keltner said. When people suppress their emotions, they end up feeling worse — a theme Inside Out worked to convey.

“One of the great things about that movie that [director] Pete Docter captured is it’s okay to be sad,” Keltner said. Presented in Hendricks Chapel, his lecture, “Survival of the Kindest: Toward a Compassionate Society,” explored both the science and evolution behind compassion, and discussed steps people can take toward creating a more compassionate society.

The concept of mindfulness also arose as a necessity in developing a kind-hearted community. Although being mindful is a concept that is hard to measure and sometimes hard to define, Keltner said it is important to be aware of what is going in your mind. Keltner admitted he struggled with anxiety in his youth until he realized his thoughts were just that — thoughts.

Ashley Smith, a social work senior, said this point specifically resonated with her. As a part-time yoga instructor, she teaches mindfulness and found Keltner’s take and the rest of his lecture interesting.

Keltner's talk also followed the emotional capacities of other mammals, particularly primates. If an infant dies, a primate will carry around the young's body for days, and other primates will release a wail in sympathy. Keltner pointed out this level of compassion and understanding of loss became evidence for Charles Darwin’s theory that emotions had traceable evolutionary roots.

Darle Balfoort, a library technician and maps assistant at Bird Library, said she came to the lecture because she was interested in the convergence of neuroscience, philosophy and psychology. She enjoyed the lecture, even though she was familiar with many of the studies Keltner presented throughout the evening.

Balfoort also liked the steps and techniques that he presented for how to be more compassionate, saying those practices can be very important.

But now, she's interested in another part of Keltner’s work.

“I’m curious about Inside Out,” Balfoort said. “Perhaps I should see it.”

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