Inception: Is it really just a dream?

Since its release in July 2010, Inception gave cinematic portrayal to a world which we could only dream of—a world in which our dreams can be invaded, manipulated, and even controlled. Leonardo DiCaprio plays an “extractor,” a professional thief who steals ideas and secrets from a dreamer’s subconscious. Chemical sleep injections, shared dreaming, extraction, and inception are all highly entertaining concepts in the movie but do any of them have a base in reality?

First of all, the movie defines “inception” as planting a seed of an idea into a second party’s subconscious by manipulating his dreams, such that the dreamer genuinely considers the idea his own. Though provoking, this notion appears to be pure science fiction. Closer to reality are studies suggesting that sleeping may be associated with memory consolidation of recently learned material. As recently as May 2010, Current Biology published a study that hypothesized that “dreaming about a learning experience…would be associated with improved performance.” The study suggested that such task-related “mnemonic processes” during sleep were strongly associated with enhanced performance as compared to thoughts during wakefulness. Yet, such processes apply only to tasks initially encountered while awake, thus relegating DiCaprio’s goal of implanting a specific and novel idea to the realms of the silver screen.

Another fantastic notion of Inception is that of “extraction,” the process of learning secret, hidden or repressed information from a dreamer’s subconscious. Again, this notion lies mainly in the realm of science fiction; however, advances have been made in the study of “brain-computer interfaces,” (BCI) which attempt to form a direct communication pathway between the brain and an external apparatus. Researchers study BCI for its potential to serve as restorative therapy for damaged hearing, sight, and specific movement.

Unlike the streamlined process of which DiCaprio boasts, BCI still has severe limitations. After a period of “several months,” the patient under study was able to send neural signals to an external device only in an “on/off” capacity. Furthermore, such communication required that a recording electrode be surgically implanted in the grey matter of the brain, a physically invasive, risky, and expensive procedure. Though transmitting high-quality signals, the devices are subject to disruption by scar tissue buildup and other natural defenses of the body.

Non-invasive BCI has its limitations as well. While considered physically safer, the external devices produce poor resolution in the signal strengths recorded due to the skull’s dispersing effect on electromagnetic waves. The most successful non-invasive BCI uses electroencephalography (EEG) to measure temporal resolution, but such techniques still currently require months of patient training and practice. Therapeutic and prosthetic uses of BCI may be near, but it appears, for the moment, that our dreams are securely hidden from DiCaprio’s prying.

“You create the world of the dream,” says DiCaprio to Ellen Page, the “architect” of Inception’s thrilling dreamscape. Dream control, while not as refined as Page’s techniques, is still a valid principle. The practice of lucid dreaming, well established by scientific research, involves the dreamer becoming aware of the dream state and subsequently influencing that dream. The primary American lucid dream expert is Stephen LaBerge, Ph.D., who founded “The Lucidity Institute” in 1987 to research and promote lucid dreaming to the general public.

Inception’s characters depend on a chemical injection to promote dream control; lucid dreaming, on the other hand, relies on conscious training reflected during Rapid Eye Motion (REM) sleep. LaBerge offers a “Lucid Dream Induction Device,” the NovaDreamer, which promises to bring “the lucid dream state within reach of everyone.” According to the device’s advertisement on the Lucidity Institute’s website, the NovaDreamer gives visual or auditory cues during REM sleep to alert the dreamer and bring him into a lucid dream.

The technique most closely related to Inception, however, is “wake-initiated lucid dreaming” (WILD). Through WILD, a dreamer enters REM sleep directly from a waking state “with unbroken self-awareness.” This technique relies on the ability of the dreamer to discern the threshold between waking and dreaming, hypnogogia. No chemical injections are necessary, yet the difficulty of recognizing hypnogogia underscores the infrequency of wake-initiated lucid dreaming.

Inception is filled with a cast of characters, each with his or her own role in entering and manipulating the subject’s dream. Yet in all the techniques discussed above, one factor remains unchanged: the dream state is autonomous, confined to the dreamer itself. Shared dreaming remains in the fictional realm, as yet unproven by scientific study. For now, our thoughts and dreams are safe from DiCaprio’s nefarious aims, which center the thought, as stated by DiCaprio, that “an idea can transform the world and rewrite all the rules.”

Image captions:

Inception_4: The character Arthur stands watch over Cobb, Eames and other characters as they enter a chemically-induced dream world.