“Am I a man dreaming I’m a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I’m a man?” Chuang Tzu asked 2300 years ago. In Christopher Nolan’s stylish sleep thriller Inception he answers we’re both – butterfly and man.Yet the science behind Inception is more surreal than the film, whose lovingly layered plot still underplays the wonderfully weird wildness of dreams. So, dream thief Mr. Cobb, what about your job is science fiction and what’s science? (Spoiler alert – plot elements are revealed:)
Can someone enter into another’s dream and change it? Nope. Not even close, unless you’re a Tibetan dream yogi or the local shaman.
Is the movie’s premise true, that it’s impossible to place content into someone else’s dream? No. Happens all the time – consciously. Lucid dreamers do it with great relish, and I’ll show you a way you can do it, too, at the end of this piece.
Can the lucid dreaming heroes of Inception take over the dreams of others? No, but they can take over and control their own. Director-writer Nolan has been lucid dreaming since he was 16.
What kinds of dream states occur in Inception? Not much you or I might recognize. In Inception, people are immediately sedated into designer dreams that appear to be REM sleep. However, virtually all present-day sedatives suppress REM, while Inception’s designer drugs also negate real REM effects.
Do people get addicted to their dreams? No, though some psychotics and a few political commentators can’t tell the difference between dreams and reality.
Are the Matrix like scenes of negating gravity realistic? Yes. In REM dreams, position sense gets turned off, and we can and do go anywhere in space and time – one reason 99% of people fly in their dreams.
Do the layer after layer of dreams seen in Inception happen in normal people? Yes. People will often dream themselves inside another dream. Sorting it out may become as complicated as understanding Inception’s plot.
Does time speed up in dreams so that ten minutes “outside” becomes an hour during the dream? Yes, but not like in the movie, where time geometrically and precisely expands with the dream’s depth. We can do far more. In real dreams infinite time may occur within seconds of “outside” time.
As Cobb describes in Inception, is constructing dreams out of one’s memories dangerous? No, just necessary. REM sleep is a critical driver of brain development, and literally rebuilds the brain. As movie plots are constructed out of old movies, so does REM and other stages of sleep remix new information with old memories, forming a huge part of our identity. Just like in science fiction movies, we wake up each morning with different memories than the person who went to sleep.
What Can You Do With Your Dreams?
Plenty – you can predream. Try this:
- Write down an old, favorite dream or experience in 3-4 sentences. 2. Add 2 sentences that remake that dream’s plot you the way you want. 3. Visualize the new dream 3-4 times a day a minute each time. 4. When you wake, record your dreams.
Inception may be all about dreams but it is also a movie about the making of movies. In movies, the most unbelievable often appears most true, which is part of the power of dreams themselves.
Why do we dream? In REM sleep we remake our memories and ourselves, producing thoughts we cannot or will not when conscious. In evolutionary terms this may have been the inception of human creativity. But I could be wrong. We may need to wait for Neo to return in a fourth Matrix film, and tell us whether Inception is a movie or just another computer simulation playing inside our consciousness. Or we can sleep on it.