Psychological Misinterpretation: How The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time and Inside Out show humanity’s ability to unknowingly project internal emotions into the external world
By: Monica Burch
People unknowingly interchange their internal emotions with the external world around them. Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time follows Christopher on his quest to find out who killed Wellington the dog, and how he processes his emotions. Through Christopher, the book showcases this mixing of the internal emotions with external stimuli as Christopher cannot understand his emotions, even though he projects them onto the external world. Christopher implicitly reacts to stimuli when he feels unsafe, but is unable to understand these reactions stem from his own longing for security. On the other hand, Disney’s film Inside Out follows 11-year-old Riley as she is unable to understand she interprets her external world with her internal feelings. Riley’s inability to recognize her reliance on the external world causes her to completely ignore the external support that would help her cope with the move to San Francisco. Unlike Christopher, Riley ultimately recognizes her reliance on the external world and further understands how to express her emotions. Both characters unknowingly undertake a quest to know that they translate external sensations into their internal emotions, but in order to do this they first must recognize their own vulnerability. Why compare the two character? Because Riley’s achievement shows explicitly what remains inaccessible to Christopher, whose neuro-atypicality constitutes a developmental challenge Riley does not have to meet. Through examining the cognition of Christopher and Riley, it is clear that she gains the ability to understand her emotions, allowing her to cope with adversity better than Christopher could.
I. Christopher’s Psychological Process
Christopher does not know he cannot connect to his feelings. He has feelings and emotions, but cannot recognize them. He demonstrates his self-ignorance through his inability to linguistically communicate the word “feel.” Every time Christopher experiences an emotion, he omits the word “feel,” showing he is unable to comprehend he is feeling an emotion. When discussing being yelled at, Christopher says, “it makes me scared” (4). By unknowingly omitting the literal word “feel,” Christopher shows his complete inability to realize any of his own internal feelings. Interestingly, the only time Christopher says the word “feel” he uses it incorrectly, further representing he does not understand how to interpret his own feelings. When explaining why he thinks he does not like lying, he discusses the endless routes lies can take, leading him to “feel shaky” (19). Of course, Christopher feeling “shaky” is not an emotional feeling, but rather a physical reaction. Even near the end of the novel, he describes himself as “feeling a pain in my chest” because he could not go back home (205). He is really feeling sad he cannot take his test, but he is unable to understand his own sadness, causing him to describe his physical reaction as a feeling.
Because he does not know he cannot connect to his feelings, Christopher projects them onto his surroundings. Every time he feels something, he assumes it is a sensation. Christopher describes sitting on the grass by saying, “it was nice” (4). Again, Christopher means the grass “felt” nice to him, but he cannot realize the nice sensation of touching grass is a feeling, and not a fact. Christopher interprets touching grass as concretely nice, even though touching grass is interpreted differently depending on the individual. Because Christopher has atypical developmental disabilities, he is unable to explicitly process his emotions, causing him to instead subconsciously decode feelings as an external experience.
He does not know what he is projecting is internal feelings, causing him to act as though his subjective emotions are fact. Christopher allows these “facts” to dictate his actions as he assumes they are objective truths. He then unconsciously turns these “facts” into distinct, and what he believes, unbending rules. From his dislike of certain colors, Christopher has unknowingly created rules that dictate his behavior based on these colors. Even though colors do not logically control experiences, Christopher projects his own dissatisfaction of the colors onto experiences and makes them worse, or better, for himself from his own irrational rule. Christopher detests the colors brown and yellow. When he sees four yellow cars, Christopher has a “black day” meaning he takes no risks. This negative reaction to a color is not from an external object, but from his own unconscious interpretation of colors. Without consciously realizing, Christopher detests the colors because they associate with unsanitary excrement. However, the color is not what makes the excrement unsanitary, yet he internalizes them without realizing. Since he does not know the distinction between these colors with excrement and in other instances, he has placed a rule based on emotions, into the external world. Therefore, Christopher subconsciously relates the yellow cars to the unsanitary nature of excrement. But because he does not understand the colors hold no true meaning, he cannot consciously distinguish the two, leading him to unconsciously feel unsanitary with the color yellow in general. His projection of feeling unsanitary through the color yellow, is yet another representation of his inability to distinguish between his feelings and the logical world.
Because Christopher does not recognize his own ability to feel and project his feelings into reality, he is unable to recognize when he is afraid, and thus, unable to resolve his fears, and know his own vulnerability. Again, when discussing his reasoning for disliking lying, he says he feels “shaky,” yet being shaky is not a feeling. Christopher really means he “feels scared.” His inability to linguistic say he “feels scared” represents his inability to understand he even feels the feeling of being scared. In fact, many of Christopher’s subconscious fears stem from his vulnerability. Nearly every time Christopher is unconsciously scared, the situation is a threat to his security. His disgust with the colors yellow and brown represent his fear of the dirtiness of excrement, while his fear of strangers more obviously scares him because he cannot trust them to not harm him. Of course, he is unable to process that these fears stem from vulnerability, as he is unable to understand any of his emotions. Interestingly, this very inability to understand himself causes more fear. Christopher says, “I think it is worst if you don’t know whether it is a good thing or a bad thing which is going to happen,” showing he is afraid of the unknown (41). If Christopher is afraid of the unknown, then his inability to understand his feelings causes him to be in a constant state of unknowing and always afraid.
In fact, Wellington’s death insights Christopher because he unknowingly projects his own insecurities about his safety onto Wellington, making him unconsciously process Wellington’s death as a metaphor for his own. Since he cannot recognize the feeling of fear he has when seeing Wellington dead, he cannot appropriately cope. It is clear Christopher feels a connection to Wellington as he is willing to break most of his rules he believes are unbreakable. Even though Christopher has the hard rule against yellow, he pets Wellington who he describes as having skin like “a very pale yellow chicken” (2). In fact, his willingness to touch Wellington shows his rule of no touching is unimportant in this instance because this death more obviously represents his fear of vulnerability than a color; there is a legitimate connection instead of a made-up rule. Christopher even relates the yellow to a chicken in order for it to take on a less disturbing representation, as animals in his mind are better than excrement. To Christopher, Wellington represents innocence as dogs are “faithful and do not tell lies” (4), which are two things Chiropter describes himself as having. Christopher would never consider killing something innocent. However, what he does not consciously realize is he has connected the idea that someone willing to kill something as innocent as a dog, would be willing to kill an innocent human, including Christopher himself. Chiropter is unable to realize he has connected himself with Wellington and is unable to realize his obsession with the dog’s death stems from his own fear for his safety. In fact, he tells his dad, “I think dogs are important too” (20). Through his own connections to Wellington, this line shows Christopher’s own need to feel important, and thus, safe.
Christopher does not express his feelings of vulnerability, but instead reacts with what seems like arbitrary, meaningless safeties, that he has unknowingly built meaning into. One of his means of coping is through prime numbers. Christopher likes prime numbers because they are easy for him to understand. Because they are easy for him to understand, he is able to know something in the world, allowing him to feel secure. Since prime numbers make him feel secure, he uses them in instances where he is vulnerable. Before describing Wellington’s death, Christopher starts the chapter with the number “2” and says the time is “7” minutes after midnight, both of which are prime numbers. Then he explicitly explains his love for prime numbers in-between his adverse encounter with the police. Christopher’s use of prime numbers represent his unconscious process of creating what he believes are logical defenses against vulnerability. Since he cannot recognize his vulnerability he must use these defenses, instead of what are considered normal human reactions. Prime numbers on their own hold no emotional meaning, but Christopher adds his own meaning based on how he feels about them in order to protect himself.
Sometimes however he uses illogical coping devices that he believes are logical. He especially uses his yearning for being an astronaut, and the sky in general, to cope. When leaving the police station, Christopher looks out the window to watch the sky. Once he looks at the sky, he is able to respond to his father, showing that the sky calmed him. Then again, he gets yelled at by his dad to stop investigating Wellington, and immediately thinks about his urge to be an astronaut. Both times he’s around his father, and both times he uses the sky to relieve his fear. He never states this as a coping mechanic, but consistently pairs the sky that he finds calming with a situation that makes him upset. Since he never explicitly justifies the reason for liking the sky, like he does with prime numbers, this translation from internal to external has no logical meaning according to his rules. But, he does implicitly explain why he likes the sky, and it again relates to the ultimate feeling of security.
Christopher uses the sky to cope with his vulnerability because he has projected his love for his mother into space. Parents are humanities protection for vulnerable children. Christopher feels unknowingly safest with his parents as they protect him against dangers. With his mother gone, Christopher has lost his main source of protection against his own vulnerability. Thus, causing him to unknowingly associate external experiences with the felling of safety he got from having a mom. He specifically represents his mother through the sky because she was cremated, and he describes her cremation as smoking going “out of the chimney and into the air” (33). He even then explicitly says he sometimes looks “up into the sky and I think that there are molecules of mother up there” (33-34). Christopher does not realize it, but he explicitly explains to the reader that he pictures parts of his mother in the sky. This means every instance Chiropter looks into the sky or thinks of being an astronaut, he is trying to connect to the protection his mother provided. This also explains why in the beginning of the novel he walks outside. He was afraid, so he needed to see his mother, but instead he found Wellington dead. His urge to be an astronaut even further shows he physically wants to be with his mother, so he is willing to change his life in order to fly up to space and see her. When his father admits to killing Wellington, he goes outside to hide in the shed that shows the sky to him. The food he even eats before running away is a Milkyway, representing once again his ability to unknowingly project his sense of security form his mother into objective things. His use of his mother as protection also shows why is willing to travel to London. He needs her protection so is willing to break most of his rules for staying safe, because to him his mother protections trumps all the other arbitrary rules he’s created. As a mother’s protection isn’t arbitrary, its real.
Christopher stops following his illogical patterns once his mom has returned, as he no longer needs their protection. After he is reunited with her, Christopher says he no longer needs to be an astronaut. Because she is back, he no longer needs to connect with the sky. He was able to take out his subjective projection of the sky and look at it again as an external thing. When searching for his mother Christopher says he “could never be an astronaut because being an astronaut meant being hundreds of miles away from home, and home was in London now” (131). In this line, Christopher is implicitly referring to his mom when he says home, representing he implicitly no longer needs to go to space because to his knowledge she is no longer in the sky, but instead in London. This line shows Christopher’s ability to unknowingly project his emotions, especially in relation to his fears of vulnerability. He wanted to go to space to feel his mother’s security, but now no longer needs to because she is no longer there.
While he undertakes this quest, he never realizes his own vulnerability, and thus, never recognizes that he feels feelings and projects them into the world. Though his journey to solve the mystery of Wellington’s death and recover his mother, Christopher was able to overcome some fears, but he never realized he projected these fears. He never understood Wellington’s death scared him because he was reminded of his own mortality. Since he could not recognize his vulnerability, he also could not recognize his projection of his internal emotions into the external world to cope with his vulnerability. Christopher never understands why he hates certain colors, or why he loves the sky. Since he could not recognize he projected into the external world, he never learned to cope in a way that would help him more than creating arbitrary rules. This means while he does end happier and has accomplished an amazing feat of overcoming fears, he did not overcome them in the way that would allow him to understand how to live his life by real rules of human nature. He still lives a confused and challenging life where he cannot interpret emotional meaning for what it is.
II. Riley’s Psychological Processing
Riley in Inside Out, on the other hand, follows a similar pattern as Christopher, as she begins her journey not knowing that she projects her emotions into the real world, but does not have the atypical barriers Christopher has. Riley has built all of her happiness and security though hockey, friends, and her family. These three are all external objects, meaning Riley projects her feelings onto the external world. Riley’s past emotions have a yellow tint when she is with others. The yellow color represents joy, and thus, having a yellow tinted image of external experiences to symbolize joy, clearly shows she puts internal emotions into her stimuli and interactions with others.
Since she has projected her feelings onto the external world, she now relies on those external things because she has equated happiness to them. Riley unknowingly now needs these external connections to feel joy. When she moves, she relies on her family’s interactions to create a happy environment, but once her father has to leave, her mood temporarily changes to an unsettled feeling because the external stimuli she relies on was removed. Her move to San Francisco scared her because it threatened the very things she used to secure her. Riley relied on her friends in Minnesota for joy, but moving physically separated her from her happiness. While she has projected her emotions onto the idea of friends in general, she does not recognize this, causing her to not understand the importance of making new friends.
Riley feels vulnerable but is unable to recognize this. She never had to recognize her vulnerability before because the external things she relies on where always present. As a child, Riley is inherently vulnerable. Of course, she previously has not had to come to terms with her vulnerability because it was protected by the external stimuli around her. Now that she has moved, all of her unconscious protections against her vulnerability have been taken away, and she unknowingly feels exposed to the insecurities in her life. Her vulnerability is represented through the core memory of her losing the hockey game. After she loses the game, she is alone and sad, represented by a blue tint to the memory. Without the external support, Riley felt like a failure, projecting her own meaning of the situation. But, once her parents and the team come to consul her, the memory changes to a yellow tint, representing the shift to happiness once the external situation changed. Riley gained her external support and saw through their reactions a different interpretation of the same external event, and thus, allowed her to change her own interpretation from a failure, to a happy connection with the people she loves. Alone, Riley feels vulnerable and is more likely to interpret her external stimuli is a threatening way, but with the external supports she’s mentally put in place, she is able to create positive interpretations of the same events.
Just like Christopher, she especially relies on parental support. She specifically relies mostly on her dad. While she clearly loves her mom, all of her happiness flashbacks of family include her dad, but not always her mother, representing the emphasis of security she has placed on her father. Since she has unknowingly projected her security onto her connection with her dad, his absents forces her to lose yet another source of happiness she has placed in the external world. This connection makes the move even harder because it is her father who caused the move and who is now too busy with work. When trying to play hockey he has to leave, and he does not say goodnight to her, only her mother. In both of these instances his absence makes her have an adverse reaction. Just like Christopher, her parental connection controls her feeling of security, even though it is an external interaction.
Through her inability to understand her projection of emotion, Riley is unable to understand she needs complex emotions. This causes her to try and return to Minnesota because she thinks its Minnesota that secured her, not friends and hockey in general, and especially her family. Since she doesn’t realize this, her journey to Minnesota is actually a regression from happiness. These complex emotions rely on the outside world. Since she cannot recognize she needs the outside world, she does not realize how detrimental it is that she pushes away others. She completely shuts down from her friends, hockey, and her parents, disconnecting from the very things she needs.
Once Riley recognizes her own vulnerability, she is able to realize she relies on the outside world. Once she finally realizes her vulnerability depends on her support with the outside world, she is able to understand the processing of complex emotions and how to cope with her vulnerability. She copes through using her projections to the external world to her advantage. She realizes it is not the specific team or friends that support her, but having people around in general that truly helps her interpret experiences. This realization is shown in that same memory regarding losing the hickey game. She realizes she had the support of her parents and her team. With this realization, she is finally able to come to terms with her new situation as she now understands how to secure herself in practically any situation. All she has to do is understand her dependence on her surroundings and openly accept support.
While Riley and Christopher both undertake similar quests, only Riley is able to recognize her vulnerability, and thus her connection to the external world. This connection to the external allows her to better cope with adversity, and live a less emotionally taxing life. Christopher did overcome some fears, but never recognized his lack of understanding of emotions because of his atypical developmental disability, making him still explicitly unaware of his vulnerability. He cannot recognize many of his fears are arbitrary connections to his main fear of his own vulnerability. Yet Riley has recognized this, causing her to change her behavior to manipulate her very ability to project feelings, making her able to knowingly change her outlook. Riley understands that humans rely on things around them for emotional interpretations and uses it to her advantage. These two characters exemplify the difference between coming to an understanding of human emotions, and not.
Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time. Vintage Books, 2004. Inside Out. Directed by Pete Docter, Walt Disney Pictures, 2015.