The Neuro-Nonsense of Inception

Christopher Nolan’s Inception has been a box-office smash, a critical darling, and the recipient of four Academy Awards. But does it make any sense? More specifically, is it based on a conception of the human mind that bears any semblance to reality?

Some very intelligent people think so. Yesterday, geek haven io9 ran a piece entitled “Rise of the Neurothriller” that says of films such as Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that their “genius lies in their ability to extrapolate what the world will be like when brain-tweaking comes in the form a gadget you can pick up at Best Buy.” The New Scientist’s blog CultureLab offers a similarly breathless endorsement of the film’s technology, which apparently is just around the corner.

Well, actually, it’s not. To put it in Wolfgang Pauli’s memorable phrasing, the mental universe of Inception isn’t even wrong. From a scientific and a philosophical point of view, Inception doesn’t make any sense at all.

Like every movie set within the human mind itself (Eternal Sunshine, Memento, every movie based on a novel by Philip K. Dick), Inception must start with a self-consistent theory of how the human brain works. What is a memory? What is a dream? Because most of us human beings walk around with only very fuzzy answers to these questions, filmmakers are able to take rather outlandish positions on them without arousing any hackles.

In the case of Inception, the unstated premise of dreaming is that one one is asleep, one is inhabiting what essentially amounts to a parallel reality external to the mental state of the dreamer. That is, things can occur in this dreamland that the dreamer is not aware of. Complicated machines can exist in this space, and operate as they would in external reality. What’s more, one can leave this alternate reality and enter another, and so on.

This premise makes for an admittedly entertaining film, but it is preposterous. Dreaming is an entirely subjective experience; everything is an illusion generated and perceived by the brain itself. You can no more “enter” someone else’s dream than you can enter into a movie that’s playing on the multiplex screen. (This being a not-uncommon trope, as seen in “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” but no one seems to be under the illusion that it represents a plausible scenario.) To put it more bluntly: a dream only exists for the dreamer.

If you “wake up” from a dream and realize that you’re still dreaming, you haven’t entered a different level of some dream-reality continuum — you’ve just experienced another illusory sensation. Contrary to the premise of the film, there is no “architecture” of a dream. We may feel like we’re inhabiting an elaborate, detailed and consistent landscape, but that’s just part of the illusion.

There are some ideas about dreaming in the film that are actually accurate. For instance, it’s true that they are powerfully influenced by emotion and subconscious cognition. And we often do wake ourselves with a powerful muscle spasm, which sleep researchers call a “hypnic jerk.”

But the movie also trades in ideas that amount to little more than folklore. It toys with the old idea that if you die in your dream, you will also die in real life. (In the Philippines, this phenomenon has its own name, bangungut; I was told that it’s particularly common while taking an afternoon nap after a big lunch.) In the movie, if you die in your dream, you will enter a kind of coma. For obvious reasons, there is no evidence for bangungut-like phenomema, or rather any evidence has gone with the dreamers to their graves.

What about the idea that time slows down within a dream, that an elaborate sequence of events in dream-space can take place in a few seconds of real time? As it happens, this claim has been investigated by researchers exploring lucid dreaming, and the results indicate that if there is any such effect, it is fairly small.

Okay, but does any of this matter? Scientific error is rife in popular entertainment. (One of the most stunning howlers I’ve come across recently is from the forthcoming Transformers  3 movie, whose trailer implies that the moon rotates with respect to the Earth; Bad Astronomer Phil Plait has a small compendium of other Hollywood science boners here.)

Being a curmudgeonly sort, however, I’m prepared to argue that Inception’s misconceptions are both symptomatic and enabling of a damaging confusion that is rife in American society: namely, that between the internal subjective reality within our minds and the external, universally accessible reality of the “real world.” It is this confusion that give rise to magical thinking and its myriad manifestations, from prayer-healing to “The Gift” and mystical notions about near-death experiences. Confusion about the boundary between dream and reality is particularly endemic among the religiously inclined, who often perceive dreams as the source of real-world information. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Israel, for instance, is located on a spot identified in a dream by the Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena.

As much as I enjoyed Inception — and I really did — I found myself constantly both fighting to suspend my disbelief, on the one hand, and to keep from sinking into depression at the realization that Nolan’s concept of the dream-state would likely register as intuitively acceptable to many theatergoers. But perhaps I’ve been overthinking things. Perhaps the average moviegoer didn’t embrace Nolan’s philosophy of dreaming so much as react as my wife did: “I liked it,” she told me as the credits rolled. “I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I liked it.”

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