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Inception, Part II: A Psychologically "Real" Dream World

Illuminating the real-world research underlying Nolan's dream world

"Inception" entered theaters mid-summer amidst tremendous hype due to the bold and creative filmmaking tendencies of writer/director Christopher Nolan. In subsequent weeks, the box office ballooned with ticket sales alongside a unanimously positive critical consensus.

Speaking of ticket sales, I recently wrote a post, in which I predicted that "Inception" would follow a very specific and unique financial trajectory. Having made 60 million dollars in its opening weekend, and 230 million dollars after a month in the theater, "Inception" is meeting my prediction with precision.

Here's the summary in a nutshell. In "Inception" the next frontier of espionage is the mind. The central character, Cobb (played brilliantly by Leonardo Di Caprio) is the best in the business at inception - the art of infiltrating the dreaming mind of another in order to steal ideas. Cobb, we quickly learn, is on the run for mysterious reasons and unable to return to America and his beloved children. That is, until Saito, a powerful business tycoon promises to efface Cobb's dark past in return for an unprecedentedly difficult inception. Saito desires for an idea to be planted - not simply extracted - into the mind of his rival, Robert Fischer Jr. Specifically, Saito wants Fischer, the recent inheritor of his father's energy empire, to dissolve the monopoly.

As the con unfolds, so do the various rules and regulations of Nolan's dream world. As it turns out, various qualities and outcomes of Nolan's dreamscape are accurate reflections of clinical research and theory on this subject.

To date, there are numerous ideas about dreams that rotate on the stage of theoretical prominence like a game of musical chairs. Ever the psychologist, Nolan loosely borrows from each of the top, contemporary theories so that he can construct a dream world that is as "real" as possible.

Below are some of the major dream theories that influence "Inception's" dream world.

The dream theory most central to the plot is fittingly known as the contemporary theory of dreams. Dreams are posited to serve a therapeutic function of sorts. According to this theory dreams are the cognitive echoes of efforts to work out conflicting emotions, as negative experiences are dissected, re-examined, and repeatedly experienced in the service of resolving negative emotion and improving coping for future threats (Hartmann, 2006).

An equally prominent theory utilized by Nolan proposes that dreams may serve as a training ground for self-preservation in which life-threatening scenarios are rehearsed in a safe and virtual environment so that, later, real-life crises are responded to in a maximally optimal and efficient manner (Hartmann, 1995).

Yet another popular take on dreams, termed the activation-synthesis model of dreams, posits that dreams are simply the product of an innate attempt to make meaning out of the random neural firing of aroused brain circuits (Antrobus, 1993).

Lastly, many of Nolan's ideas are in-line with a theory noting that the dreaming brain seeks to interpret external stimuli, as evidenced by the intrusion of real-world occurrences like a blaring television (Antrobus, 1993).

To learn more about "Inception," real-world dream theories and, in particular, how such theories operate within the plot and subtext of the film please stay tuned for my full article that is coming soon to PsycCRITIQUES.


Antrobus, J. (1993). Characteristics of dreams. Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreaming.

Hartmann, E. (1995)Making connections in a safe place: Is dreaming psychotherapy? Dreaming, 5, 213-228.

Hartman, E. (2006). Why do we dream? Scientific American.

Hobson, J. A. (1999). Consciousness. New York: Scientific American Library.