Sunday, 6 January 2013

Inception (2011)

Inception (2011)Christopher Nolan had outdone himself in terms of creating another original mind-bending, thought-provoking story with unconventional narrative structure since Memento (2000). This article doesn't contain any plot spoiler. In fact, it doesn't say anything about the story. The article tries to find out where Nolan got his ideas from.

While Inception is a work of fiction, it's based firmly on real science. What I'm trying to do is discussing the real psychology research that Nolan based in crafting the film script for the sci-fi thriller.

When a task is a little bit challenging for us, it gives us a sense of accomplishment when we're on top of it. It's like a difficult puzzle that we could eventually solve. But when it's way too challenging and goes over our head, and we're losing the plot (so to speak), doing this task, meaning watching this movie becomes a frustrating experience.

The complexity of this SF thriller lies in essentially 2 areas. The 1st is due to the inclusion of a full range of dream phenomena, and the 2nd is its unconventional narrative structure. A couple of dream phenomena just isn't enough for our director. He puts in the whole hog.

Some of these dream phenomena are well known, others are obscure. In fact, a few are not even well understood by researchers. Some are explained explicitly in the movie, others are not.

Here is the list of Dream Phenomena that are made use of extensively in this sci-fi thriller.

1. Shared Dreaming / Mutual Dreaming / Mass Dreaming.
2. False Awakening.
3. Incorporation of External Stimulus into a Dream.
4. Perception of Time in Dreams.
5. Lucid Dreaming

I'll shorten the words "Dream Phenomenon" to DP.

You could watch it without any of the background knowledge of these DPs, it will just seem random and complex. You could simply watch all these strange things like the kicks, zero gravity, the totem, etc as part of the logic of the movie, and had nothing to do with real life science behind it. While it can still be very entertaining, you learn nothing about real life. Knowing the actual science will deepen the appreciation of the film, instead of thinking everything in the film are nothing but artificial constructs of the writer, it tackles these real world abstract concepts in an imaginary setting.

DP#1 - Shared Dreaming / Mutual Dreaming / Mass Dreaming
Inception, extraction
Shared dreaming requires telepathy to occur. I.e. when one person dreams, another picks up its dream telepathically while he/she is sleeping. Traditionally, Chinese doesn't believe in mutual dreaming. They do, however, believe that the spirit of the departed could communicate with them through dream. I guess it's easier to swallow that a spirit has telepathy than mortal being.

Regardless if we believe such thing, the mutual dreaming in Inception is done by having several parties hooking up to a machine. So no telepathy is necessary.

Whether we believe this DP depending very much if you believe telepathy exists. I'm somewhat sceptical, but I'll keep an open mind. Those who have telepathic power could plant an idea into my head to make me change my mind. Seriously, I just touched on the central idea of the movie. By combining these 2 things - DP#1, and planting an idea using the machine - is what Inception is.

DP#2 - False Awakening
This is a more down-to-earth DP than DP#1. While it isn't very common, I'm sure a number of readers would have experienced it. I have to say, I haven't, yet. I'm quite boring as far as dreamers are concerned. Basically, in a false awakening, dreamer thought they have woken up from a dream, but in fact, they're still dreaming. In other words, this DP is a dream within a dream.

Inception, water flowing into vanThe existence of this DP is critical in the plot of movie. Without it, there's no Inception. Only normally, we've 1 level of DP#2, which is why sometimes this DP is also called Double Dream. In this film, it takes the idea a step further, and takes the dreamers to 3, even 4 levels deep. You could call it triple dream, or quadruple dream.

Many movies have exploited this DP before this film, but none have gone so far, and so deep, literally and figuratively.

DP#3 - Incorporation of External Stimulus into a Dream
This DP sounds a lot more mouthful than it really is. It's actually quite simple to explain. While you're sleeping outside, the temperature drops significantly. If you're dreaming, you might find yourself dreaming you're in a ski slope with no clothes. Or when your dog licks your cheek while you're dreaming, you might end up dreaming that you get wet kisses from your girl; or that you're wiping your cheek with a wet towel, or you're lying on a wet pillow, etc.

Inception, water flowing into castleThis DP is very common place not just in our dreams, but it also had been shown in many movies/TV series before, usually comedy. The example I just gave about the dog licking your cheek is a case in point. In Inception, this DP is used with great effect. In fact, some of the most memorable scenes in this movie come from the application of this DP.

When Cobb falls into a bathtub while he's in a middle of a dream, water flood into the windows of the castle in his dream. As the team is sleeping in a van, undergoing mass dreaming, the shared dream incorporates the dramatic free-fall of the van into dream that takes place inside a hotel.  Everyone in the hotel is in weightlessness because that's what happens when we're in a free-fall. We experience zero gravity.

While this DP is the least crucial in the story plot, it gives the film's dreamscape its most theatrical effect.

DP#4 - Perception of Time in Dreams
The movie makes it very clear about the lengthening or slowing in the perception of time in dream. While this question isn't completely settled by dream researchers, I'm not going to convince you one way or another. I'm going to give you an example that I imagine many people experienced before: falling out of bed while dreaming.

I remembered a few times I fell out of bed when I was a kid (adults have probably bed trained to avoid falling off  the bed, much like training to avoid bed wetting), I dreamt I fell over a building or cliff. So the experience of time during the fall seems longer. After all, falling from a building or cliff before hitting the ground are surely takes longer than falling to ground from a meter of my bed.

Scientists said that time seems to move slower when we're young because of the larger intake of oxygen into our brain. Maybe when we dream, and since our whole body is at rest, our brain could extract the most 'juice' or oxygen from our body. Or simply expect that falling from a cliff or building should take longer. It's a question of expectation, not perception. But then, could we separate perception from expectation?

This falling off the cliff or building is a very good example because it captures both DP#3 and DP#4 in a dream. 2 for the price of 1. What's more, our mind is so quick in creating a new scenario - the falling of a cliff or building - to incorporate the external stimulus of falling off the bed. How long does it take to fall from the bed to the floor? That means our brain takes a fraction of that time to conjure up the falling "scene" in our dream. One might ask, if that's not fast thinking - therefore slow dream time - then what is? Well, is it possible that we create the falling scene after we hit the bedroom floor? And the falling scene could take as long as our brain like. I suspect, our brain incorporates all these from external stimulus to alert us of any external danger. So no, the dream should occur ASAP.

This danger signal - like hitting the ground after falling from a cliff or building - usually jerks us from our slumber. Indeed, in Inception, they call it the "kick". This is usually a very dangerous action - like killing somebody - to wake somebody up from their dream. This obviously borrowed from my example of the falling out of bed.

This falling out of my bed is a good example for one more reason. The falling of the van from the bridge in the movie is the ultimate expression of falling out of bed.

DP#5 - Lucid Dreaming
This last, but not least DP is perhaps most most central of all the 5 DPs. The whole idea of the blurring and confusion between reality and dream is highlighted by this DP. Simply put, a lucid dream is a special kind of dream where the dreamer is knowing that he's in a dream.

Inception, artificial worldNormally we don't know we're dreaming. When we have a nightmare where we're chased by a 'monster', we got freaked out and run amok. If we knew we're dreaming, we probably wouldn't run. We most likely stop and check out if the 'monster' is a person wearing a suit. Even if we're not checking it out, at least, we would stop and think instead of running amok. Most likely, we would think to ourselves, there's no such thing as monster. This is a practical joke.

But in a nightmare, there is no stop and think. We react. Well, we're dreaming, not thinking. You don't think in a dream. You do that in a waking state. And you don't aware you're in a dream. If you do, you would start thinking, reasoning.

In short, in a dream, we're not aware we're dreaming. In waking, we aware we're not dreaming. It's awareness that makes the difference between dreaming and awake.

Is it possible that we both dream and aware that we dream. In other words, both dreaming and waking. Well, that what a lucid dream is. Our paradoxical DP#5.

I may not have convinced if I didn't experience it myself. But only once. Why once, and not more, or never? I had never experienced, in fact heard of the term "lucid dream" about 20 years ago. Not until I read a few books on dream research (this is before the World Wide Web). That night, I read about lucid dreaming. I had the habit of reading before sleeping. So it's the fact that I read about lucid dreaming before sleeping that led me to have a lucid dream.

That night, I dreamt I had dinner with a bunch of friends in our favourite restaurant. After dinner, people were getting comfy and they rested their feet on the dining table. I followed suit. It was a reasonably upmarket restaurant. Only then I suddenly realised this has to be a dream because I know either any of my friend or myself would rest our feet up on a table like that, ever. This has to be a dream. Without that realisation or awareness, I would continue to dream normally, not realising I'm dreaming. The book explained that I should keep telling myself before sleeping to look for clues that something isn't real. A reality check. In fact, the term wasn't even invented yet. It wasn't used at all in the book I read.

In the movie, this example of reality check with a spinning top is much more convincing because there's nothing impossible about putting feet on table. It's just a faux pas we never do. But not physical impossibility like a spinning top that never stop spinning. The example in the movie is much neater, but my own example works just as well for me. In movie, thing needs to be neat. In real life, things are more loose and messy.

I remember the book also suggested that one of the reality check could be trying to flick a light switch. Several volumnteer dreamers said that the light switch doesn't work in a dream. While the book never explained why. My guess is, if the light switch works, the light would be switched off, and the dream would be in total darkness. As far as I know, there's no such thing as a dream in total darkness. I think that's called "no dream". In other words, if you can't switch off a dream, the light switch shouldn't work. It's weird, and yet toally logical. Welcome to the weird, and wacky world of Lucid Dream. It's really much more strange than this movie. Well, reality is stranger than fiction. No doubt about it.

Anyway, it was what happened next that's interesting. Once I realised or was aware that I was dreaming, I recalled in the book - yep, I was thinking in a dream! - that once I knew I'm in a lucid dream, I could control it. Instead of letting the dream carries me powerlessly, helplessly as always, I had the ability to shape the dream, control its direction. Yep, I was the director in my dream.

The 1st act, something that naturally came to mind was levitation. I told myself to float onto the ceiling. I had some difficulty at first. But with some effort, I did float onto the ceiling. Unreal! Ok, let float out the window. I told myself. It took even more effort, but I succeeded. And I told myself to fly like Superman. I did! Hey, tell me, who's not dreaming of flying? Apparently, you can do it in a dream at night, and not just daydream about it.

It took a lot of mental effort though to do those gravity defying acts in my lucid dream. This is note-worthy. In The Matrix, Neo is having problem doing gravity defying act because he's new to it. His mind hadn't been used to these experiences at first. I imagine if I did the floating and flying a few more times, it would become easier. Just like Neo in The Matrix.

It's one thing to read in a book that there's such a thing call Lucid Dreaming, it's another thing to actually experience it. And what an experience it was too. But I didn't have another one of those wonderful experience. Why? There're many technical reason that are too tedious to go into it. Let's just say I couldn't repeat another one.

Was it because I wasn't serious about my dream study. No. I was quite serious. I kept a dream journal with 30+ dreams recorded. I just didn't have another one. Mind you, that it was books that I read 20 years ago (and the book maybe 5+ years old). The point is, there weren't as many as techniques to help me to get into DP#5 as they do today. I'm sure there're great strides in dream research in the last 20+ years. Another thing, I also a little bit nervous about controlling my own dreams. Are they meant to be controlled like that? At least, that was what I thought. This mental adventure may carry certain risk. After all, it's an undiscovered country. Or at least, a not very well explored frontier. I decided to play it safe, and quit the whole enterprise. Maybe I'll take it up again one of these days.

What I learnt about DP#5 is the paradox of reality and dream. Even before my fantastic brush with DP#5, I mulled over the nature of dream and reality. Most Chinese would have heard about the musing of Zhuangzi, a Taoist Chinese philosopher who lived nearly 2400 years ago about the famous Butterfly Dream. Let me just summarise a very deep philosophical discourse into something like this. He dreamt of a butterfly. On waking up, he asks himself if he's a man dreaming a butterfly or he's a butterfly dreaming that he's a man.

This ambiguity of reality and dream lies in the heart of Inception. The various characters asks the question at various times in the movie, "Is this a dream or reality?" And the idea of being lucid while dreaming is absolute central, without it, Cobol Engineering wouldn't be able to have a business. No business, no movie.

There were movies that explored or made use of some of these DPs before. E.g. The Matrix (1999), Vanilla Sky (2001), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and Shutter Island (2010). But none involves such a spread of DPs. This director threw in everything but the kitchen sink. Well, He probably feels that he couldn't just do the same thing as his predecessors. He has to push the envelop. Another thing this movie has in common with the examples is that all these movies show how dreams could be constructed from reality and memories, and are quite indistinguishable. This is the very essence of Lucid Dreaming.

I'll probably write articles on these movies if I'm in the conducive mood. I probably have something of interests to others to say.

In my article on Memento (2000), I focused mostly on the convoluted narrative structure. In a way, the narrative structure in this movie is even more innovative. The narrative structure of Memento consists of 2 narrative thread or time-lines. And the 2 time-lines are colour coded so that the audience could tell them apart. In the process of Inception in the 2nd half of the movie, there're actually 4 time-lines going on in parallel. It should be more confusing, but it's in fact easier to follow. This is because the different time-lines occur in very easily identifiable locations - inside the plane, the van, the hotel and the hospital among the snow field. This way, the viewers always know exactly where they're in the story.

Hopefully all this will help the audience who hasn't seen the movie (where have you been?) would find the movie easier to follow if they decide to watch it. If you had seen the movie and didn't get it, I hope you will do so after reading this article. If you have watched it, and was able to follow the story without any problem, I hope this article will shed light where Mr. Nolan got his ideas from. And if you're the person in the latter case, I hope we could swap notes.

Happy viewing!

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