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Inception Part III: A Filmmaker Disguised As a Psychologist

The psychology of Hollywood's hottest film director

"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.

Such critical and financial success has become a pattern for Christopher Nolan films, from his first mainstream movie, the fascinating "Memento," to his more recent work, a sophisticated revitalization of the Batman series. This pattern, I believe, is predominately due to one simple fact: Nolan is a psychologist disguised as a filmmaker.

Indeed, there are two underlying themes within Nolan's films that mirror the aims of psychologists: a relentless dissection of common yet complex mental processes, and a case study of relatable characters battling psychological woes. In short, Nolan tackles the sort of mental mysteries found in therapy offices, and he treats the material with the kind of careful and sophisticated stance nurtured by clinical training.

In "Memento," for instance, Nolan discussed retrograde amnesia and a protagonist who devolved from an innocent victim into a killer consumed by obsession. "Inception" is a bit lighter but just as thought-provoking, as Nolan examines dreams and a traumatized hero struggling to find his way home.

The World of Inception

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 billionaire and 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.

With such an attractive offer on the table Cobb goes to work. He assembles the necessary crew for creating and controlling a dream space and together they construct the mental seed to be planted: "My father actually loved me. He wants me to be my own man. I will do things differently." In addition to Cobb's role as the extractor, the team is made up of a master role player (Tom Hardy), a chemist (Dileep Rao), an architect (Ellen Page) and a loyal associate (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

What unfolds is a clever and intricate con, in which the team induces the unsuspecting Fischer into a state of deep sleep. The team enters his subconscious and at this initial dream level they kidnap Fischer and bombarded him with subtle primes and persuasive notions related to his deceased father and a secret will that reveals the "seed." Here's where things get a little confusing. The crew convinces Fischer that he is dreaming, and that his father's business associate, Peter Browning, has attempted to hijack Fischer's subconscious out of self-interest. The crew further convinces Fischer to enter Browning's mind - a second dream level - in order to find out why. At this deeper level the team has Fischer break into a fortress in order to find the "will," so that he can then confront his father (really a projection of Fischer's own, manipulated mind) in a cathartic climax. As with most heist thrillers, all goes well. Because the planted idea took root with such depth and deceptiveness Fischer misperceived the planted idea as genuine inspiration.

The World of Dreams

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. Some theories posit grand, underlying explanations for dreams while other studies seek to validate a single feature of the dreaming process. And, theories that have stood the test of time are increasingly challenged by more contemporary ideas. The net outcome of this literature is an array of vastly different, sometimes contradictory theories, all of which seem plausible and none of which supply a complete, unquestioned explanation.

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.

The contemporary theory of dreams most central to Nolan's plot posits that dreams serve a therapeutic function. 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). Nolan uses this idea as the springboard for the crew's con. In the film, Fischer is put to sleep and the crew gently guides him toward an imaginary confrontation with his distant, recently deceased father. At the end of the dream Fischer experiences (or so he thinks) a positive catharsis in which his familial relationship is clarified and resolved. He awakens, and although he has been manipulated, Fischer's life is now brimming with the aftereffects of healthy mourning, positive affect and increased meaning.

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). Nolan creatively flips this idea on its head. In his brave new world of subconscious infiltration, the mind is most vulnerable when asleep. As such, a cottage industry of subconscious protection has arisen, so that powerful and vulnerable figures like Fischer can receive training in real life that prepares them for life-threatening scenarios in their dreams. Unfortunately for Cobb and his team, much of the film is spent fighting off Fischer's "resistance," as gun-totting bodyguards serve the mental equivalent of anti-bodies fighting off a foreign infection/planted idea.

Yet another popular take on dreams, known as 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). Much of the film's comedic moments revolve around this idea. For instance, when the crew enters the chemist's dreaming mind, they must contend with a violent storm, because Dileep Rao foolishly drank a glass of wine beforehand and now has to pee.

Lastly, Nolan uses a prominent dream theory to explain how the crew members enter and exit the dream world. At any given time, each member must awaken to perform the next step in the con. This awakening process is triggered by music that is played into the specific crew member's headphones. Such a musical trigger is in-line with the idea that the dreaming brain seeks to interpret external stimuli, as evidenced by the intrusion of real-world occurrences like a blaring television (Antrobus, 1993).

In addition to the curiosity-driven exploration of unusual mental events like dreaming, the other way in which Nolan doubles as a psychologist is in his attempt to comment on mental illness processes. Research is only half the battle as psychologists also seek to translate empirical insights into tangible treatment interventions for psychologically suffering individuals. Nolan uses trauma as a bridge between the two worlds of clinical investigation and practice. For instance, research has shown that exposure to trauma exponentially increases the rate of nightmares, a central symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Paivio & Pascual-Leone, 2010).

The World of Cobb

With Cobb, Nolan has constructed a resilient and admirable character that has been pushed into the throes of mental anguish. At the end of the film, as the dust settles from multiple, intersecting stories, Cobb's personal narrative crystallizes. Many years ago, he and his dearly beloved wife, Mal, worked together as expert extractors. One day they decided to test the limits of dream infiltration. They dreamed within a dream to such depths that the layers of reality became disorienting. Trouble arose when Mal became overwhelmed by a mysterious and dark secret that Cobb never knew she possessed. As a result, Mal lost her grip on reality. The level-headed and clever Cobb decided to perform the first real inception. He planted an idea in her head that the current world she was suffering within was "not real." Tragedy struck when both Cobb and Mal finally awakened to the real world, and the planted idea evolved into an all-consuming, irrational notion. For Mal, actual reality became just another dream level. Harboring the erroneous assumption that she was still in a dream world, Mal jumped off a building expecting to awaken from the dream. Instead, her actions amounted to suicide, rendering Cobb alone, paralyzed by the sadness of a lost soul mate, and racked with the guilty awareness that his planted idea triggered her demise.

Throughout the film Cobb's inner-workings resembled a traumatized mind. Though too high functioning to exhibit clinical levels of PTSD, Cobb's psyche was routinely haunted by traumatic memories that flooded his consciousness with stress and negative emotions and threatened his sense of happiness and sanity. When he dreamed, a part of his mind fixated on Mal. His projection of her intruded on his dream world, as Mal would morph into a violent and erratic figure capable of sabotaging the crew's cons. This personalized, traumatic version of "Mal" fed off his unresolved guilt and sadness. He refused to let her go, and he blamed himself for her deadly actions. In short, the thoughts and feelings associated to "Mal" were intensely negative, un-integrated and unresolved, the very definition of a traumatic response (Paivio & Pascual-Leone, 2010).

Cobb could no longer do what he used to be the best at doing, designing and navigating dream worlds. Furthermore, the more he dreamed, and the deeper he and his crew delved in the dreams of others, the more intensely and frequently his "Mal" issues intruded.

Upon noticing this escalating problem, Cobb responded with a misguided solution. He requested that the chemist secretly help him construct a prison of emotionally-charged, Mal-related memories. This "prison" symbolizes a psychological process known as suppression, in which distressing mental material is pushed away, stuffed into the outer reaches of consciousness (Paivio & Pascual-Leone, 2010).

Thus, Cobb entered into the common and vicious cycle of trauma, in which the traumatic experience created intrusive and upsetting thoughts, which led to attempts at suppression, which, in turn, intensified the already-intrusive thoughts and increased the nightmares and generally impaired performance. Nolan has presented a diagnostically accurate picture of trauma. But the psychologist within Nolan knows that the story can only end when treatment has been experienced. During the film's climax Cobb confronted his unhealthy narrative of guilt and blame, and rewrote a healthier version that more accurately and compassionately recounted all that he had tried to do and all that was beyond his control leading up to Mal's suicide (McAdams, 2006).

As a gifted filmmaker Nolan entertains and delights, as "Inception" rich character development, meticulous storytelling, gripping action and surprising, emotional twists. As a psychologist-in-disguise, Nolan goes a step further and discusses dreams, perception and mental health. In-line with the dreaming literature, Nolan presents a dream world as a rich and elaborate mental space, in which the dreamer is simultaneously creating and perceiving. This world is founded upon significant developmental experiences, populated by idiosyncratic desires and plagued by unresolved emotional issues. Further, dreams become a place where an individual can experience creative inspiration, grapple with mental illness and achieve mental health.

A Final Therapeutic Message

With "Inception" Nolan is imagining a future in which people can be manipulated through their dreams, while pointing to a present in which people are manipulated by movies. This is why there is a distinctly Hollywood feel to the dream sequences, as, for instance, a snowy fortress channels the James Bond films, and a gravity-defying hotel fight conjures up the "The Matrix Trilogy." Nolan seems to be saying, we as consumers of Hollywood film, are susceptible to subconscious thievery on a more subtle, smaller scale. Movies can implant ideas into the subconscious, feed or fiddle with ideologies and treat people like puppets. By playing with perception and reminding us that he is doing so, Nolan is respecting the line between fantasy and reality, noting the power of projection and reminding us, the audience, of cinema's sneaky influence. Such a message fosters self-awareness and insight, the primary objective of any good psychologist.

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Paivio, S. & Pascual-Leone, A. (2010) Emotion-focused therapy for complex trauma: An integrative approach. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

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