Deconstructing, and Demystifying Inception.
Christopher Nolan had outdone himself in terms of creating another original mind-bending, thought-provoking story with unconventional narrative structure since Memento (2000). This article doesn't contain any plot spoiler. While Inception is a work of fiction, it's based firmly on real science. What I'm trying to do is discussing the real psychology research that Nolan based in crafting the film script for the sci-fi thriller.
When a task is a little bit challenging for us, it gives us a sense of accomplishment when we're on top of it. It's like a difficult puzzle that we could eventually solve. But when it's way too challenging and goes over our head, and we're losing the plot (so to speak), doing this task, meaning watching this movie becomes a frustrating experience.
The complexity of this SF thriller lies in essentially 2 areas. The 1st is due to the inclusion of a full range of dream phenomena, and the 2nd is its unconventional narrative structure. A couple of dream phenomena just isn't enough for our director. He puts in the whole hog.
Some of these dream phenomena are well known, others are obscure. In fact, a few are not even well understood by researchers. Some are explained explicitly in the movie, others are not.
Here is the list of Dream Phenomena that are made use of extensively in this sci-fi thriller.
1. Shared Dreaming / Mutual Dreaming / Mass Dreaming.
2. False Awakening.
3. Incorporation of External Stimulus into a Dream.
4. Perception of Time.
5. Lucid Dreaming
I'll shorten the words "Dream Phenomenon" to DP.
You could watch it without any of the background knowledge of these DPs, it will just seem random and complex. You could simply watch all these strange things like the kicks, zero gravity, the totem, etc as part of the logic of the movie, and had nothing to do with real life science behind it. While it can still be very entertaining, you learn nothing about real life. Knowing the actual science will deepen the appreciation of the film, instead of thinking everything in the film are nothing but artificial constructs of the writer, it tackles these real world abstract concepts in an imaginary setting.
DP#1 - Shared Dreaming / Mutual Dreaming / Mass Dreaming
Shared dreaming requires telepathy to occur. I.e. when one person dreams, another picks up its dream telepathically while he/she is sleeping. Traditionally, Chinese doesn't believe in mutual dreaming. They do, however, believe that the spirit of the departed could communicate with them through dream. I guess it's easier to swallow that a spirit has telepathy than mortal being.
Regardless if we believe such thing, the mutual dreaming in Inception is done by having several parties hooking up to a machine. So no telepathy is necessary.
Whether we believe this DP depending very much if you believe telepathy exists. I'm somewhat sceptical, but I'll keep an open mind. Those who have telepathic power could plant an idea into my head to make me change my mind. Seriously, I just touched on the central idea of the movie. By combining these 2 things - DP#1, and planting an idea using the machine - is what Inception is.
DP#2 - False Awakening
This is a more down-to-earth DP than DP#1. While it isn't very common, I'm sure a number of the readers would have experienced it. I have to say, I haven't, yet. I'm quite boring as far as dreamers are concerned. Basically, in a false awakening, dreamer thought they have woken up from a dream, but in fact, they're still dreaming. In other words, this DP is a dream within a dream.
The existence of this DP is critical in the plot of movie. Without it, there's no Inception. Only normally, we've 1 level of DP#2, which is why sometimes this DP is also called Double Dream. In this film, it takes the idea a step further, and takes the dreamers to 3, even 4 levels deep. You could call it triple dream, or quadruple dream.
Many movies have exploited this DP before this film, but none have gone so far, and so deep, literally and figuratively.
DP#3 - Incorporation of External Stimulus into a Dream
This DP sounds a lot more mouthful than it really is. It's actually quite simple to explain. While you're sleeping outside, the temperature drops significantly. If you're dreaming, you might find yourself dreaming you're in a ski slope with no clothes. Or when your dog licks your cheek while you're dreaming, you might end up dreaming that you get wet kisses from your girl; or that you're wiping your cheek with a wet towel, or you're lying on a wet pillow, etc.
This DP is very common place not just in our dreams, but it also had been shown in many movies/TV series before, usually comedy. The example I just gave about the dog licking your cheek is a case in point. In Inception, this DP is used with great effect. In fact, some of the most memorable scenes in this movie come from the application of this DP.
When Cobb falls into a bathtub while he's in a middle of a dream, water flood into the windows of the castle in his dream. As the team is sleeping in a van, undergoing mass dreaming, the shared dream incorporates the dramatic free-fall of the van into dream that takes place inside a hotel. Everyone in the hotel is in weightlessness because that's what happens when we're in a free-fall. We experience zero gravity.
While this DP is the least crucial in the story plot, it gives the film's dreamscape its most theatrical effect.
DP#4 - Perception of Time in Dreams
The movie makes it very clear about the lengthening or slowing in the perception of time in dream. While this question isn't completely settled by dream researchers, I'm not going to convince you one way or another. I'm going to give you an example that I imagine many people experienced before: falling out of bed while dreaming.
I remembered a few times I fell out of bed when I was a kid (adults have probably bed trained to avoid falling off the bed, much like training to avoid bed wetting), I dreamt I fell over a building or cliff. So the experience of time during the fall seems longer. After all, falling from a building or cliff before hitting the ground are surely takes longer than falling to ground from a meter of my bed.
Scientists said that time seems to move slower when we're young because of the larger intake of oxygen into our brain. Maybe when we dream, and since our whole body is at rest, our brain could extract the most 'juice' or oxygen from our body. Or simply expect that falling from a cliff or building should take longer. It's a question of expectation, not perception. But then, could we separate perception from expectation?
This falling off the cliff or building is a very good example because it captures both DP#3 and DP#4 in a dream. 2 for the price of 1. What's more, our mind is so quick in creating a new scenario - the falling of a cliff or building - to incorporate the external stimulus of falling off the bed. How long does it take to fall from the bed to the floor? That means our brain takes a fraction of that time to conjure up the falling "scene" in our dream. One might ask, if that's not fast thinking - therefore slow dream time - then what is? Well, is it possible that we create the falling scene after we hit the bedroom floor? And the falling scene could take as long as our brain like. I suspect, our brain incorporates all these from external stimulus to alert us of any external danger. So no, the dream should occur ASAP.
This danger signal - like hitting the ground after falling from a cliff or building - usually jerks us from our slumber. Indeed, in Inception, they call it the "kick". This is usually a very dangerous action - like killing somebody - to wake somebody up from their dream. This obviously borrowed from my example of the falling out of bed.
This falling out of my bed is a good example for one more reason. The falling of the van from the bridge in the movie is the ultimate expression of falling out of bed.
DP#5 - Lucid Dreaming
This last, but not least DP is perhaps most most central of all the 5 DPs. The whole idea of the blurring and confusion between reality and dream
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