By Editor on August 11, 2010 5:19 am
Anirban Mahapatra, Ph.D., is Acquisitions Editor at the American Chemical Society where he oversees the strategic direction of a portfolio of journals including ACS Chemical Neuroscience. He comments on art, culture, society, and politics on his blog, Milk Miracle. In this essay, Anirban considers whether the theories about the human mind in the film, Inception, are rooted in scientific knowledge of dreams, consciousness, and the architecture of the mind. Thought-provoking and beautifully shot, the film, Mahapatra argues, takes considerable creative license with contemporary neuroscience.
Christopher Nolan’s Inception is an exceptionally ambitious film about the journey of thought-thieves who enter into the dreams of others. The film intertwines multiple story arcs into one viewing experience. The film opened worldwide in July, 2010 to overwhelmingly positive reviews. Given that the film deals with topics at the cutting-edge of neuroscience, it is worthwhile comparing the arguments about the mind presented in the film to prevailing theories in neuroscience.
The main character in the film, Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a thief adept in the art of extracting thoughts from the dream-state of individuals as required by his business clients. Inception is a film about his last assignment which requires him to do the exact opposite––insert an idea in the mind of a young business tycoon.
At the heart of the film is a reinterpretation of the old-fashioned heist movie filled with car chases, gun-fights, and resplendent pyrotechnics. These sequences are wondrous spectacles. The second half of the film sees a particularly dazzling progression of scenes, all the more compelling since they are layered in the alternative, tiered, reality of dreams and dreams-within-dreams.
Nolan splices layer upon layer of these different visual sequences to Hans Zimmer’s mesmerizing soundtrack. A film of this nature requires a complex soundtrack to enhance experience. It is worth noting that recent research indicates that both listening to music and receiving formal training helps develop auditory ability in much the same way that physical activity enhances endurance.
The film is also about the complex relationship between emotions, perception, and reality. Cobb brings a fair share of emotional baggage to the table, and the film is as much about his perception of reality and the emotional bonds he shares with others as it is about the mind of the people he enters.
Finally, in order to build the framework for examining dreams, Nolan spends a substantial amount of time in Inception building a set of rules for dream examination and extraction. Plot structure, attention to detail, and character are central to the experience, these components of the film have been dealt with in detail by other critics. Because Inception is purported to be a thinking person’s film and because the director’s invests significant time in explaining the theoretical underpinnings of thought-capture in the film, it is worth examining them in detail.
How do you insert an idea into someone’s head? Let us consider the idea presented in the film first. According to the film, in order to have a successful inception of an idea, it must be planted as a “seed” or a vague notion in the subconscious and allowed to grow into a full-fledged idea. To gain access to the mind, it must be inserted when the subject has his or her guard relaxed: the best way to enter the mind of a subject is when he or she is dreaming because it is at this time that it is exceptionally vulnerable to the power of suggestion.
Why can an idea not be planted through the power of suggestion in a wake subject or through hypnosis? Well, for one there would be no science-fiction blockbuster woven around this simple, yet true explanation. Nolan tries to hammer across the notion that “ideas” are “parasites” that elicit a reaction similar to an immune response in the brain. This is untrue, and there is an inherent paradox in the explanation. We know that very few behaviors, mostly associated with survival, are instinctive. However, if an idea is not innate, then by definition it has external roots and it is susceptible to the power of suggestion—dream state or otherwise. In other words, most ideas do come from outside the mind and are subject to constant modification. This paradox does not detract from the narrative, but it is worth bearing in mind.
Law enforcement officials and magicians have known for years the relative ease by which false memories can be implanted. Psychologists have studied many of the ways by which memories can be changed in alert individuals without their conscious knowledge. Recent studies have affirmed that when there is mismatch between a decision and its outcome, subjects retrospectively rationalize choices they never made in the first place. Clearly, the mind is a place ripe for tricking!
Also, as we all painfully know, the act of forgetting is also a common occurrence. For many years the general assumption was that once a memory had been consolidated and turned into part of a long-term memory system, it was maintained indefinitely. Recent research has demonstrated that even consolidated memories are susceptible to decay. Whenever a memory is retrieved, it is prone to change. In other words, every time you recall events from your childhood, you change these through reconsolidation. Over time, these events add up so you either remember incorrectly or even forget.
There are additional preconditions to the foundations of the plot. First, is the assertion that dreams influence conscious decision-making in individuals. Second, is the corollary that that the rules of conscious decision-making apply to dreams too. Both are required to believe the premise of the film. Currently, these theories are the subject of intense debate. Although there is no reason to believe that dreams can influence decision-making in adults, new research suggests that newborn infants do indeed, learn while they’re asleep. Whether or not this trait is maintained throughout life is not currently known.
What Nolan probably did not know at the time of filming is that the brain can indeed “shut down” sequentially in parts to create altered states between sleep and wakefulness. A study published earlier this year demonstrated that the thalamus deactivates a few minutes prior to the cerebral cortex at the onset of sleep. The deactivation of the thalamus is a prerequisite to losing consciousness, but during this wake-sleep transition phase, there is a high chance that the sleeper will experience hallucinations of a vivid nature.
There is also another concept presented in the film, that of a limbo-state. Nolan concocts an elaborate guise in that the dreamer cannot die in his or her own dream, but the dream invaders enter a comatose, vegetative state once they die inside someone’s dream.
Nonetheless, setting these preconditions aside, the dreams in Inception are vivid, though for the most part, linear. Even the most creative filmmakers are constrained by the limitations of their imagination and their art. I suspect that Nolan knew that it would be foolhardy to even try to replicate an actual dream, so he broke dreams down into two fictitious components. The first is the architectural structure that is created by the thieves and somehow uploaded into the mind of the dreamer. The second is the people that populate these hollow architectural structures which he calls projections in the film. Both are ingenious devices that allow Nolan to rein in dreams so that they resemble recognizable locations such as street corners in Paris.
Nolan also uses a very early Freudian notion of deep layers of thought, which has since fallen out of favor. At one stage, Cobb perpetuates the “we only use a part of our brain” fictitious meme. His use of “subconscious” (which has no concrete scientific meaning) throughout the movie to the more commonly used “unconscious” is also likely deliberate in order to put forward the idea that there are layers below the conscious. This comes into great effect in the final act when there are layers of “subconsiousness” which can be controlled and navigated like different levels of a video game. The denouement may also leave some viewers exasperated. However, given the complexities of the plot it was one of only few resolutions logically possible.
So is Inception worth watching? Definitely. Is it rooted in the current understanding of how the mind works? No, but that should not detract from the viewing experience. Inception is a thoughtful and beautifully-shot film. In addition, how many other commercial films can claim to ask us to delve deeper into the recesses of our own minds?
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