Inception, Lucid Dreaming and Hypnosis - a film review
Spoiler warning! This article is best read after you've seen the film.
Inception is Christopher Nolan's
epic combination of heist, sci fi, psychological thriller and metaphysical
mindbender and is breathtaking, complex and profound. It explores a world of
corporate espionage with lucid dreaming and hypnosis and offers a revealing
insight into these psychological states. Although sci fi, much of the material
describes the dream state accurately and the film maintains it's own internal
logic throughout. This post is a discussion of the film as related to lucid dreaming, particularly from my own experiences.
The main theme is the attempt by a team of highly skilled individuals lead by Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) to perform an inception on the powerful oil mogul, Robert Fisher, to reverse a corporate decision which may have an impact on the course of world events. This 'inception' entails planting an idea in Fisher's mind at such a deep level that he will fully accept it. To do this the team weave through levels of embedded dream states so as not to alert his mind to the foreign nature of the idea, in what hypnosis and NLP might call 'embedded metaphors'. The essence of the idea behind Fisher's decision concerns the relationship with his father and the secrets behind this are locked away in a metaphorical safe in the dream state. With the deep hypnosis and amnesia from the layers of dreaming, Fisher is eventually persuaded to join the team in the mission, fighting his own dream projections. I like the way the film turns in this way and Fisher's final inception feels no longer like a manipulation and more like a genuine healing experience. Meanwhile, Cobb’s symbolic elevator descent brings him to a level where he heals the guilt ridden relationship with his fantasy projection of Mal, his dead wife which has been plaguing his dreaming and undermining the mission throughout.
Cobb assembles a group of experts with his sidekick Arthur for the classic ‘one last big job’. The forge can mimic mannerisms and body language to a degree that in the dream he can appear as another person. The chemist produces the sedatives necessary to achieve the right quality of sleep to promote the dream experience. The architect builds the dream environment and is new to the game though quickly develops a powerful ability to create and change the physics of the scenery in what Tibetan dream yoga might call developing ‘flexibility of mind’. She cleverly puts 2 mirrors together to create the illusion of a long corridor which once seen and conceptualized logically is relatively easy to construct in the dream space. This way of allowing the unconscious visualizing mind to catch up with the conscious is used in lucid dreaming practice to create scenarios and manifest dream characters which would be difficult by simply issuing commands from the conscious mind. Her initial lucid experience is accompanied by a dramatic exploding of the dream surroundings. This is spectacular to watch and in my experience the onset of lucidity often changes or dissolves the scene though the sense of reality shifts in a much subtler way, but on a $200 million budget, why not.
The use of totems in the film is much like the reality testing dream signs lucid dreamers often use such as flying, penetrating solid objects or other feats impossible in waking life. The classic technique of watching your hands melt under a lucid gaze uses the concept that the conscious mind when directed at a complex, unconscious visualization like your own hand, finds it cannot cannot sustain it effectively, thus a reminder that we're dreaming. The spinning top totem, spinning indefinitely would most certainly be a dream sign though to observe it toppling would be inconclusive as the dreaming mind might produce that outcome anyway through expectation. The film’s key use of the totems however, was to test that you weren’t being messed with in someone else’s dream.
In the film, the dreamer is awoken by a 'kick' used simultaneously in the various levels of dream. They are first played Edith Piaf's classic ‘no regrets’ as a warning and then subject to a free fall, meant to simulate the jolt of waking up. This really struck a chord with me. The sensation of free fall or weightlessness is something I sometimes experience on occasions that I've fallen asleep consciously and if I manage to stay aware and asleep through this volatile period, usually undergo some of the classic 'out of body experience' (OBE) phenomena such as rising, falling and floating. In my experience, this state is often visually unclear and as such is difficult to sustain without waking up. I might therefore, intentionally kick start a lucid dream by a bold action such as jumping out of a window. This is dramatic and often highly euphoric but needs to be timed right. Too soon and the sleeping mind seems to be unable to visualize enough to consolidate a dream. The change from this ‘OBE’ state to lucid dream has sometimes happened spontaneously or via a kind of ‘light tunnel’, an experience shared by many others. Later in the lucid dream if I experience falling or floating it can sometimes be a reminder which pulls me back to this initial stage of pre-dream sleep. Sometimes the sensation can act as a dream sign and bring on lucidity in a non lucid dream.
The dream within a dream
Awaking from the dreams within dreams used in the film sometimes produced the confusing false awakenings experienced by dreamers. Lucid dreamers have a variety of techniques to change to a completely different dream such as walking into mirrors or my favorite, spinning while flying. These sometimes simply produce another dream or sometimes what really feels like another level of reality. Great as the film is, I'd have preferred the deepening layers of dream to have become more abstract with a greater degree of symbolism rather than more James Bond style adrenalin fueled fight scenes.
The concept of limbo in the film is a kind of unmanifest mind space where the ability to create seems limitless and where lucidity is hard to maintain. Cobb seems to have managed to some extent in his 50 years with Mal and then in his search for Saito who becomes an old man until being alerted by the barely lucid Cobb at the end (and the beginning) of the film. Mal appears to have deliberately accepted limbo as reality by symbolically locking away her reality testing totem, hence the need for Cobb to implant the idea in her mind that limbo is not real. This persists even after killing themselves on the train track and waking up to what Cobb assumes is reality, Mal trying to convince him otherwise. She has a point, and the reality level is never fully revealed. This is a great concept and one experienced by many lucid dreamers and spiritual practitioners that waking life is in some sense, illusory and a product of the mind.
Although profoundly thought provoking and metaphysical, the film treads on psychological ground and no mention is made of limbo and the dream states once the brain dies, The notion detailed in Tibetan dream yoga suggests the after death bardos to be similar in nature to dreaming and the quest is to achieve lucidity in this after death state.
As for shared dreaming...I’ve never experienced anything conclusive though have had dreams alluding to this and have heard plenty of intriguing anecdotal evidence by master practitioners.
The end of the film is ambiguous and the cut to the credits before the spinning top falls leaves open the question of whether we are still dreaming. The plane journey may be another level of dream and the whole film may have been Cobb’s elaborate, unconscious therapy session. His wife Mal may even be alive and trying to wake him up such as Michael Caine's character hinted when he said 'get back to reality Dom'.
Overall, a great film though I believe it may have benefited from less bang bang. Dreams are often adrenaline soaked fight scenes though I'd have also liked to have seen some of the more subtle and euphoric elements of dreaming explored. As an exploration of hypnosis it was also interesting. The film also creates a kind of U trance in the viewer by creating many layers of unfinished scenario with the eye of the storm healing sessions near the end. Hopefully, the film will have the effect on popular awareness that the Matrix had in the late nineties, that reality is not as solid and objective as we sometimes assume.
I'd be interested to hear any comments and other peoples' take on the film especially the ending.
Other films about lucid dreaming
There aren't many but 'Waking Life' is by far the best I've seen
Waking Life trailer
Buy the 'waking life dvd' here
More on Lucid Dreaming
- What is the difference between Lucid Dreaming, Out of Body Experience, Astral Projecton and Dream Yo
This hub includes my thoughts on a question that's been discussed at some of the dream groups and seminars Ive attended recently.
- Info on lucid dreaming - The Creative Healing Guide
For more info, products and books on lucid dreaming and out of body experience, visit the Creative Healing Guide.
- The Academy of Dreams
For London workshops and seminars in many aspects of dreaming including lucid dreaming, OBE and Tibetan dream yoga
- Charlie Morley on Lucid Dreaming
The official website of UK based Lucid Dreaming teacher Charlie Morley, containing information about Lucid Dreaming and Tibetan Dream Yoga
- Todd Routt
A UK based teacher on out of body experience
- The Creative Healing Guide
An information website on many aspects of mind and bodywork with videos, books, massage DVD and products including videos on lucid dreaming / out of body experience.
- London Video Production
I run a small London based video production company 'Promo Video UK' specializing in promotional videos, corporate video, music video, documentary etc...
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