“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” Thinking about Inception

Loved it. Brilliant. I felt like I had to ice down my brain after leaving the theater. Inception inspires thought about the right and wrong ways to end stories, and the power of dreams and storytelling, and more.

I detected echoes of Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and of course The Matrix.

But I was never really impressed by the Matrix movies. The premise of characters unaware they live in a simulated universe seemed cliched to me even in 1999 when The Matrix came out. But Inception seemed fresh and unique. (Not everyone loved Inception, however.)

If you don’t want spoilers, put Edith Piaf on your gramophone and ride the kick back to reality. Otherwise, read on for more discussion of Inception.

Of course, Inception’s ending plays with the audience’s expectations. It’s like The Sopranos and Lost, and like those two shows, it inspires strong feelings. Some people get angry at an ending like that, they feel it’s the writer’s obligation to provide answers. Did the top fall? Did Tony Soprano get gunned down? I loved the ending to all three stories (although I had to be persuaded to love the ending of The Sopranos—at first, like millions of viewers, I thought our cable had gone out at the worst possible time.)

My interpretation of the ending of Inception: He’s in real life. It doesn’t really matter whether the top falls, because, as he explained earlier to the projection of Mal, he now knows how to tell the difference between dreams and reality without using a totem. Reality is more perfect and imperfect than dreams.

It’s possible I’m wrong. If the ending of the movie is a dream, the reasonable assumption is that it’s a dream Cobb created for himself in limbo. But there’s another alternative: That the entire movie is a dream—presumably Cobb’s dream. But who made it for him, and why?

Inception is a movie about storytelling. It’s about building imaginary worlds and sharing them with other people. It’s about how these imaginary ideas sometimes become real and powerful—just ask anyone whose life was changed by reading a great novel.

The movie itself was very dreamlike. As Cobb notes, you never remember the start of a dream, you’re just in it. The movie, similarly, starts in media res, with Cobb washing up on the beach. (I had to restrain myself from wisecracking out loud, “Is this a Titanic sequel?”)

Leaving the movie theater was like waking from a powerful dream. For a few minutes, I was unsure which was the dream and which was reality. It’s a good thing my wife was driving.

The experience of Cobb and his team reminded me of Second Life. I know in some ways it’s laughable to compare the crude graphics and buggy software of Second Life with the rich, imaginary worlds created by the dreamers in Inception. But the real interface for Second Life (and the MUDs that preceded SL) is the mind, not the computer, and Second Life is all about building imaginary worlds where you can live alternate lives and share them with other people. In Second Life, like in dreams and in Inception, you can fly. Many of the best builds in Second Life are dreamlike, a mishmash of images and ideas from all over the world and all periods of time. As in a dream, you might visit a nightclub in the clouds, where robots, cat-people, cowboys, Romans and vampires dance.

The central gimmick of Inception reminded me of a James Hogan novel, Realtime Interrupt. His novel, published in 1995, four years before The Matrix, was a story about a man trapped in virtual reality who was unaware the world around him wasn’t real. (I told you—The Matrix seemed pretty unoriginal to me when I saw it.) He learns the backstory about how the VR was built: At first, researchers thought to try to replicate the real world, but found they lacked the computing power to make the world anything other than cartoony. Then they had the insight that when we dream, we think that what we’re experiencing is real. And so they tapped into the dreaming part of the brain—and it worked. They didn’t have to build a world in a computer, they just had to outline it and let the dreaming mind fill in the details.

Or, in the words of Cobb in Inception: “Dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange.”

The Hogan novel is a puzzle story, about how the hero figures out he’s in a dream-like VR, and how he gets out of it. Anyone who hated the ending of Inception would love the novel, because all the questions in the novel are answered, and all the loose plot threads are tied off neatly.

But a few months ago, I started to think that Hogan was only scratching the surface of his idea. You might tap into the dream center of the brain to create a more vivid internet experience, but dreams are powerful mojo, and the people who tap into dreams might find they’ve unleashed very deep magic indeed. I had these ideas before seeing Inception or even hearing about it. Must be something in the air.

The root of Inception is a very deep belief, dating back to ancient shamans and given a scientific veneer by Carl Jung, that dreams are a window into deep truths, insights about ourselves and our souls, perhaps even a deeper reality. We think that dreams are important, that they matter, basing that on millennia of traditional beliefs and a century of psychological science. But there’s another, newer belief among neuroscientists: That dreams don’t mean anything, that they’re just the random firing of neurons, and we apply narrative and meaning to them when we wake up. According to this scientific theory, dreams don’t matter at all.

Scientists tell us we need sleep, and dreams, that they help our body refresh and clear out toxins, and turn short-term memories into long-term memories. Without sleep, we get sick and die and go mad. Chronic shortage of sleep is comparable to alcoholism in reduced capacity and ill health effects.

And yet we don’t really know anything about sleep and dreams. We don’t know why it’s necessary, or what happens to our body and brains when we sleep. We know more about the far side of the Moon than we know about a condition in which we spend a third of our lives. We have a vast scientific frontier as close as our own bedrooms.


Mitch Wagner is a fan, freelance technology journalist and social media strategist, who blogs about technology on the Computerworld Tool Talk Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner. He’s looking for a publisher for his first science fiction novel, and hard at work on his second.

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