In the film “Inception”, Dom Cobb, is an “extractor”: he steals confidential information by hacking into a subject’s brain during a dream and conning the victim into disclosing his secrets. This intellectually-challenging and visually-captivating film makes a series of assumptions, none of which withstands close scrutiny:
The film’s fundamental assumption is that dreams are objective entities, akin to buildings whose existence is independent of the observer and are, therefore, accessible to all and sundry. But dreams are highly subjective experiences. External and internal cues are interpreted by and integrated into complex, shape-shifting and highly-idiosyncratic neural networks resident in the head of the dreaming individual. One cannot “tap” into another person’s subjectivity (thoughts, emotions, dreams), even in principle (this is the infamous problem of Intersubjectivity). While we can communicate and discuss our inner world, we cannot share it in any meaningful sense, we cannot invite visitors or tourists there. Lucid and directed dreaming is possible, but dream-sharing is not. If we were to enter someone else’s mind, we would merely experience our reactions to her mind and not the mind itself.
Intersubjectivity is defined thus by “The Oxford Companion to Philosophy”(1995):
“(Intersubjectivity) refers to the status of being somehow accessible to at least two (usually all, in principle) minds or ‘subjectivities’. It thus implies that there is some sort of communication between those minds; which in turn implies that each communicating minds aware not only of the existence of the other but also of its intention to convey information to the other. The idea, for theorists, is that if subjective processes can be brought into agreement, then perhaps that is as good as the (unattainable?) status of being objective – completely independent of subjectivity. The question facing such theorists is whether intersubjectivity is definable without presupposing an objective environment in which communication takes place (the ‘wiring’ from subject A to subject B). At a less fundamental level, however, the need for intersubjective verification of scientific hypotheses has been long recognized”. (Page 414).
2. Defenses and Dreams
The film cannot make up its mind: Cobb tells the aptly-named Ariadne, the “architect” (dream-designer) that the dreaming person’s defences are down and all vigilance is gone. This vulnerability makes possible the art of extraction and renders counter-extraction (aka neurosecurity, defensive tactics against thieving extractors) a necessity.
Yet, throughout the movie, the invaded subject’s “subconscious” (should be “unconscious”) keeps attacking the extraction team. It keeps sending out hostile, violent, and murderous “projections” (figments) to eliminate them. Cobb even compares these apparitions to white blood cells! So, which is it in a dream state: defences down or defences at a maximum?
As Freud, the surrealists and Dadaists knew well, dreams are audio-visual manifestations of the unconscious, the seat of all psychological defense mechanisms. In dreams, we are hypervigilant and paranoid. One cannot compel a subject to reveal secrets even under hypnosis, let alone while dreaming. Moreover: dreams provide access only to the unconscious – but, secrets reside exclusively in the conscious part of the mind! The extractors are looking for confidential information in the wrong place!
Finally, dreams use symbols and representations and require interpretations. Even the most pedestrian information is thoroughly encrypted using a highly private language. The film errs in that it depicts dreams as merely “augmented reality”, albeit of a highly imaginative and creative sort. Dreams are coded messages, not representations of the world. In this sense, every dreaming person is a solipsist and an extraterrestrial alien.
3. Waking up and the stability of dreams
In the film, there are only two or three methods of terminating the dream state and waking up. In reality, the repertoire is unlimited: we wake up for hundreds of reasons including metabolic processes, pain, environmental stimuli, anxiety, compulsive thoughts, circadian awareness, habits, and fears. Dreams are highly unstable states. So unstable, in effect, that many scholars believe that this, precisely, is their role: to keep us alert and on our toes even as we sleep. The use of sedatives (as in the film) actually suppresses dreaming, making them highly counterproductive as far as the extractors are concerned.
4. Dream time dilation
This is a long-discarded myth: dream time is roughly equal to real time. One hour in a dream translates to one “real” hour. It is true, though, that the laws of physics are sometimes suspended while dreaming: distances contract or vanish, for instance. This gives the erroneous impression of time dilation.
5. “Totems” and the reality test
The film warns against the blurring of boundaries and distinctions between dream and reality, especially if one leverages one’s memories in the framework of lucid dreaming and incorporates them in the design of new phantasmagorias. Dreamers may lose the reality test and remain unable to tell the two states apart. To guard against this ominous psychosis, extractors use “totems”: objects whose behaviour is different in a dream to their true and everyday conduct. Cobb carries a spinning top which, in his dreams, never stops spinning (an oddity which informs him of his slumberous state, of course).
While it is true that objects acquire unfamiliar, even outlandish properties and behaviours in our dreams, their deviations and abnormal characteristics vary from one dream-instance to another and are utterly unpredictable. In one dream, the spinning top will spin forever; in another, it will refuse to spin at all; and, in a third, it will turn into a dove. “Totems”, therefore, would be useless as a litmus test. Far better to use a classic “reality check”: try to go through a solid object, levitate, look at the face of an analogue clock, or flick a light switch on and off.
Moreover, it is not strictly true that all dreams “feel real” to us. Some dreams do and others don’t. We often know that we are dreaming even when we are in the throes of an unfolding visual narrative that is inexorable. We sometimes test ourselves in the dream or even will ourselves to wake up. This ability to tell dream from reality is at the heart of our certainty of which is which.
Nor is it universally true that dreams have no discernible or remembered “beginning” and that we just find ourselves inexplicably immersed in them. The professional literature contains numerous descriptions of dreams with neat beginnings. More often, dreams lack an ending. These absent resolutions and closures provoke and elicit in us psychodynamic processes which are conducive to personal transformation and growth, or even to healing.
6. Nested Dreams
False awakening (dream within a dream) is a documented – albeit, rare – phenomenon. The dreamer usually dreams that he is waking up. There are three caveats, though: (1) Most nested dreams occur in familiar surroundings (one’s bed, home, or workplace); (2) The nested dreams share subject matter, some continuity, and a narrative, a plot, or story line; and (3) Invariably the dreamer realises that he is dreaming. Only the second condition is met, to a limited extent, in the film.
7. Creation vs. Discovery or Inspiration
Everyone around Cobb insist that inception – implanting an idea in someone’s dreaming mind so that he feels that he has come up with it once he wakes up – is an impossibility. Dreaming, Arthur says, involves “pure creation”. It is a process that feels like discovery or inspiration rather than the laborious and tedious constructs that we come up with while awake. Cobb tells Ariadne that our brain is far more active and more efficiently deployed when we dream (completely untrue, judging by brain wave activity).
According to these cinematic extractors, implanted ideas would, therefore, feel alien absent the essential experiences of “discovery” and “inspiration”. The subject is bound to react with violence and aggression to the dimly perceived invasion and mind- or dream-snatching. It is the extractor team’s job to avoid these defences against intrusion by convincing the subject that the foreign idea is his. Saying more would constitute a cruel spoiler.
But can we really make the distinction between “our” ideas and ideas we have been exposed to and absorbed, ideas whose source is external? Is this taxonomy of “endogenous” versus “exogenous” correct? The answer is a resounding “no”. We cannot reliably attribute our ideas to their various sources and cannot credibly tell their origins. Nor do we try to. We assimilate memes and make them ours because such plagiarism has survival value. The unhindered dissemination of “strange notions” (to borrow Saito’s phrase in the film) has untold beneficial effects, as any Internet addict will attest.
Furthermore: inspiration and intuition are often cloaked as reasoning and ratiocination. We feel that certain discoveries, theories, and works of art are the outcomes of our toil and rational investment even when they are actually the tip of an unconscious iceberg. Dreams are no different: when we are in them we obey this or that logic; construct theories about our environment, events, and actors; and assume ownership of our ideas and actions, regardless of their source. We never bother or stop to ask the absurd and unanswerable question: “Wait a minute, whose idea was this in the first place?” and so the premise on which the entire film is built is dubious.