Lights, Camera, Action: Visions of the Mind and their Hacking in ‘Inception’

Neenu Kumar

Neenu Kumar


Years ago a question was posited by Plato: ‘How exactly can we explain our perceptions of reality?’ The answer is yet to be found and like the ‘totem’ in Inception (Nolan 2010), the ‘top has not stopped spinning.’

Dreams have fascinated researchers for centuries. Freud was of the opinion that dreams paved the way for the ‘unconscious.’ He felt that the “sources of dreams include stimuli from the external world, subjective experiences, organic stimuli within the body and mental activities during sleep” (1900: 22). While sleeping, the body might be in a state of rest but the mind never sleeps. It continues to work/ think. Dreams constitute a reality which is separated from the reality of the waking mind. Memories, desires, secrets and fears, which cannot be fulfilled in waking moments, manifest themselves in dreams. They may appear to be strange, bizarre, uncanny or idiosyncratic on awakening but nothing appears to be weird during the dreams. When a person is part of a dream, the most ridiculous thing is believable. The details, if they can be recalled, are not only complex but vivid and very real. Everything is possible in a dream. The clearer the dream, the faster is REM (Rapid Eye Movement). This is the result of the ups and downs faced during the dream.

In the movie, the concept of ‘inception’ is introduced by Stephen Miles. A professor of architecture, he uses it on his daughter Mal and Dominic Cobb, as a means to create newer and more appealing buildings. Both get addicted and are often seen sharing their world. This is the utopian world, as depicted in dreams, Mal continues to inhabit even after her suicide. After her death, Cobb uses ‘inception’ for devious purposes of drawing out information for business thefts. Those participating in these activities do not realize that they are part of an unknowing ‘dream-sharing technology.’

The penetration of the mind is not at one level in Inception. There is always a dream within a dream and at times, a third dream also becomes part of the entire dream sequence. Mal and Cobb, however, reach levels far deeper than the ones experienced by others and reach a state of complete ‘limbo.’ This is a level of ‘unconscious’ from where no one can exit. Mal does not wish to leave this point as it affords unconditional joy. She wants the living Cobb to inhabit it with her to complete the rosy picture of a perfect couple of her mind/ dreams, who would grow old together and continue to love each other. The ‘inception’ of Fischer’s mind to plant an idea so that he should break his business, which takes place on a third level, on the behest of Saito, is complex, full of peril and involves life-threatening risks. Cobb is willing to dig deep as he is certain that he would be able to use the ‘kick’ (‘the feeling of falling that jolts a person out of a dream’ Inception) and come out of it. He is unaware of the hold Mal has on his ‘unconscious.’ It is Ariadne who brings him out of it. Otherwise, trapped at the stage of ‘limbo,’ he might not have been able to leave it alive as the projections of someone else’s mind tend not only to overpower but also control the other person’s dream with a view to kill him/ her.

J. Allan Hobson (1999; 2002; 2005) argues that ‘we experience dreams as whacky as our dream experiences are a “patch job.’” They are un-meaningful experiences ‘to make sense of basic automatic responses, such as biochemical changes (such as a drop in serotonin and an increase in acetylcholine levels) and spontaneous electric pulses, coming from the brain stem.’ Daniel Dennet (1978) thinks that ‘dream experiences are queer narratives we create as we wake up from the REM sleep and our cognitive function returns to normal.’ In Inception

an unknown ‘derivative’ of the drug ‘Somnacin’ is used to enter and extend the dream while it also allows the dreamers to be connected. Time passes rather slowly in a dream while the mind functions more quickly and ‘five minutes in the real world gives you an hour in a dream’ (Inception).

As the dreams operate on various levels, their contents can be manipulated. While Saito thinks that he is part of Cobb’s dream, Cobb disappears and Nash informs Saito that he is in his dream. The projections from the subconscious of another allow the characters, especially Cobb, to ‘literally talk to his subconscious’ (Inception). The multi-layered dreams, or ‘embedded dreams’ as they are called, allow them to reach the hidden-most part of the subconscious to access the required information. The subject himself allows this to happen as he is as interested in learning about himself as are the others.

Dom thinks that he can indulge in ‘inception’ and Saito feels that he wants the ‘inception’ to take place. The idea of ‘inception’ is planted in Cobb’s mind by Saito. Both believe that they are free to think like that. That is not the case. Dom agrees to it because he wants to be united with his children and Saito’s avarice to have more power, more money steers him towards Dom. In fact, both are using each other for their ulterior motives. Neither Cobb nor Saito are being involved or hired freely or of their own volition. Their minds make them believe that they are causing their own actions. They feel free. Skinner (1971) argued that ‘even the ability to be able to contemplate the origins and implications of our choices isn’t an act of self will, but the result of a stream of causes, most of them subconscious.’

It is a task to plant ideas in another’s mind; an easier way out is if there is time and the person is willing to listen. Ideas can be repeated and a willing mind can prove receptive. Fischer, however, is neither willing to listen nor is there time. The need of the hour is to use the effective method of ‘inception’ for a mind which has created almost unbreachable defensive walls, against raiders, around his mind. In fact, he has militarized his mind as Cobb has hidden the memories of Mal deep in his unconscious, which he tries his utmost to hide but are discovered by Ariadne when she enters his dreams. So, ‘embedded’ dreams are used to make Fischer think that the thoughts are his own. He has to be convinced that he has to create his own identity, out of the shadows of his father’s inheritance. Kathleen Taylor opines that “even if we wished to avoid all attempts to influence us, we simply don’t have the cognitive resources to detect and counteract each and every [idea]” (2004: 251). Fischer feels abject rejection at the last word ‘disappointed’ (Inception) spoken by him. He thinks that his father voiced a lifetime of disappointment that his son could never live up to the expectations the father had from his son. Cobb and his friends invert the whole idea and make Fischer believe that the disappointment was that he never got a chance to follow his own passions. Cobb says: ‘I think positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time. We all crave reconciliation — we love catharsis. We need Robert to have a positive emotional reaction to all this’ (Inception). Cobb understands that the chances of ‘inception’ would increase manifold if it would have an emotional basis. So, he decides to trigger Fischer’s emotions against his father to reach the deepest crevices of his mind, implant the idea and wait for a positive response to that ‘inception.’

There is a thin line between both the ideas as both interpretations are related to Robert Fischer’s own understanding of his self. There is the ‘significant other’ which had always wanted to please the father. Cobb and his group end up providing a form of ‘catharsis’ for Fischer where he reunites with his estranged father, even though the father is dead. The team is certain that they would find momentous business secrets behind the steel door of the safe. Instead, the son learns that the father’s disappointment lies in the son trying to become like him. The will clearly states for Fischer to be his own man and there is a child’s hand kite, which the father had cherished all his life. A thinking Cartesian person has to be certain about one’s own self in relation to others. Descartes (1996; 2003) felt that ‘we are defined by our thinking’ and to think clearly, the self has to be alone. However, that is not possible as ‘we are isolated in even in our dreams. We carry a sense of a self that is defined by our relationships with others.’ Fischer carries the sense of his self in relation to his father and what gets him through is the definition of self his father had for him. Probably Fischer’s mind is pliant to ‘inception’ because he always wanted to see acceptance in his father’s eyes.

The ‘self-organization theory of dreams points towards memory consolidation; emotion regulation and reception of external stimuli can contribute to dream content’ (Zhang 2016). A dream, as a result can give a lot of pertinent details about the dreamer. As far as ‘the case of memory consolidation during sleep’ is concerned: as per the ‘two-stage memory model (McClelland et al., 1995; Stickgold and Walker, 2005; Born and Wilhelm, 2012), the process of memory consolidation generates memory fragments to extract pertinent information when an individual is asleep.’ Mal exists in Cobb’s memories; she is part of his subconscious and ‘subconscious is fuelled by emotion’ (Inception). So, whenever someone enters Cobb’s dreams, Mal automatically appears in them. It is like a package deal. However, she is not what she used to be but ‘a real charmer’ (Inception) as Ariadne refers to her. Mal would rather hurt and/ or kill to keep Cobb with her in her state of Limbo. Cobb realizes the fallacies of allowing memory enter his dreams and Ariadne points out the same. He insists that ‘he can handle it.’ Mal is the projection of Cobb’s memory. Every time someone tries to alter Cobb’s dream space, the ‘subconscious feels that someone else is creating this world…the projections start to converge…they sense the foreign nature of the dreamer [and] attack like white blood cells fighting an infection’ (Inception). It is the fear of Ariadne altering the bridge which creates the projection of Mal. The world created in dreams is drawn from memory and any discontinuity is filled with ‘scattered memories.’ Everything is real: the grain, consistency, physics and sensory experiences. The difference between the dream and reality is only in the ‘degree’ as Cobb points out. Nothing in a dream is merely witnessed. It is lived, experienced and shared by every sensation of the body. This is the basis of ‘quantum physics’ as Karen Barad opines: “to ‘see,’ one must actively intervene” (2007: 51) and ‘this participation introduces a motion through the very act of seeing; it changes how things appear.’ She also mentions that “part of seeing is also being convinced about what one sees” (Ibid.). So, seeing and acting appear directly proportionate to each other. There is no certainty which way things are. However, living in this world, action has to be taken as a state of not taking action can prove detrimental “This is precisely what’s at stake in Inception: the contingency of the dream and, by extension, of reality, requires some belief. This strangely echoes the leap of faith Saito and Mal ask Cobb to take” (Botz-Bornstein 201: 67).

Years ago, Descartes (1996; 2003) pointed out that ‘logically, we can never be sure we are dreaming.’ The reality of the experiences might have been questioned but it was never doubted that the thoughts belong to a person. In Inception this is challenged. Ideas are inserted into the minds of the character/s. Dreams are used to covertly enter the subconscious of the character/s. It appears to be a classic case of forced entry. William James said that premeditated acts required an “effort of attention” as compared to the involuntary responses/ thoughts, which are part of the everyday thinking of a person. Habits can result in two or three ideas exist concurrently but in case of less habitual processes, efforts have to be made at a conscious level where the mind can swing effortlessly from one to the other and without losing precious time. “Within any one of the systems the parts may be numberless, but we attend to them collectively when we conceive the whole which they form” (1950: 490). John Dewey (1938) wrote: “The self isn’t something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action…The good man is the man who, no matter how morally unworthy he has been, is moving to become better.” Cobb and Mal have created a dream world which they inhabited for fifty years. After some time, the sameness of the world begins to irk Cobb. To compound it, there is the realization that the world they live in is not real. He forces Mal to accept the unreality but she cannot come to terms with it and commits suicide to remain in that dream forever. He is ridden with guilt. She becomes an everlasting part of his unconscious.

It is important to note that inception proves to be mentally damaging for Mal. Cobb convinces her that the world she is living in is unreal; ‘Your world is not real’ (Inception). Mal continues to mull over it and for her it is ‘simple little thought that changes everything’ (Inception). Her mind gets fixated on the ‘idea.’ She loses interest in everything. Her attachments to the real world are broken. She does not even care about her children. Cobb is the only person she cares about. He says: ‘Once an idea’s taken hold in the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. A person can cover it up, ignore it — but it stays there…This is inception. The seed of the idea we plant will grow in this [person’s] mind. It might even come to define [her]’ (Inception) become true for Mal. The ‘idea’ (‘that caused [Mal] to question her reality came from [Cobb])’ (Inception) gets lodged in her mind and it becomes near impossible to extricate it. The ‘idea’ begins to define her. She becomes delusional. Cobb, then, takes her to the world of dreams where everything is right with her world. He does what he believes would be helpful for Mal. In the process he does not treat her as someone who could determine things for herself. When he realizes that the situation is uncontrollable, he tries to bring her out of it but is unsuccessful. He loves her, cares for her and wishes to bring her back to the real world. Mal had known the truth of the dreams but she had locked it away. The only way to ‘break free’ was to plant another idea in her mind ‘that her world wasn’t real’ (Inception). He tries to tell her that the dream world is an illusion and the only way to come out of it would be to die. But, even after she comes back to reality, she is not able to get the ‘idea’ out of her head ‘that death was the only escape’ (Inception). She does not accept the reality of the real world and kills herself.

The Mal in Cobb’s dreams is vindictive but the one in his memory is a sympathetic person who is confused and is always looking for Cobb’s approval. The one in his imagination is his own creation. When Mal implores Cobb to stay with her in her dream world he tells her that they had their time and that they did stay together. Mal knifes Cobb in the hope of keeping him with her. He tells Ariadne to leave with Fischer as their ‘kick’ had set in. He says: ‘I can’t stay with her anymore because she doesn’t exist…I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You’re just a shade. You’re just a shade of my real wife’ (Inception). He declines to stay with someone who is a mere shadow of the woman he had once loved.

Cobb tells the same thing, he had told Mal, to Saito when he goes deep in Mal’s mind to rescue him. ‘I’ve come back for you to remind you…of something. Something you once knew. That this world is not real…To take a leap of faith…so that we can be young men together again’ (Inception).

Inception works on two levels. While ‘inception’ works positively for Fischer, it does not for Mal. On another level, Inception is not merely about planting ideas. It is also about ‘extraction’ (Botz-Bornstein) which not only helps to complete the mission but also helps to save lives — Cobb saves Saito; Ariadne saves Fischer and Cobb.

Nolan, however, leaves the movie open-ended. According to the laws of Physics, the spinning ‘totem’ should fall. It does not. Nolan leaves it to the audience to draw their own conclusions.



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Neenu Kumar is Assoc. Prof. in English at Aditi Mahavidyalaya, University of Delhi. She is recipient of: Best Teacher Award (2014-2015) conferred by N. C. T. of Delhi; Certificate of Honour by Aditi Mahavidyalaya for College-Lecturer Award-2015 for outstanding academic achievements; Ecologist and Environmental Health Educationist Award; Social Worker and Nutrition Educationist Award; Environment Awareness and Promoting Girl Education Award in 2017, 2018 and 2020. She has co-edited Prawasi Sahitya Prasang and published articles in books and journals and poems in books. Instagram: @drneenukumar

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