INCEPTION (the movie), dreams, and writing
On September 25, 2010 | 0 Comments

While in Stockholm, I saw the movie Inception, a 2010 science fiction film written, produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan of The Dark Knight fame and others. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role and runs a hefty 2 hours and 28 minutes long. It is probably a movie that could usefully be seen twice, because at its peak there are three or four simultaneous movies running within it.

The briefest possible version of the synopsis: a heist type movie in which corporate thief Dom Cobb (DiCaprio) steals ideas from peoples’ minds by entering their dreams. A team is assembled at the behest of businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe) to perform what will be Cobb’s final and most difficult challenge, after which he will be free to return home to his two children. The twist is that this time he’s not going to steal an idea, he’s to implant one via the technique of inception.

The target of the inception is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), son of Saito’s terminally ill corporate rival, Maurice Fischer. In order to pull off the mission, Cobb and his team must enter the dreams of others at successively deeper levels. There are then a number of complications, as is typical in a heist movie.

If you want to understand exactly how the movie works (or doesn’t, depending on your viewpoint), I recommend you go see it, or rent it when it becomes available. It’s a bit dodgy to explain, and that isn’t really my aim here. The film makes one wonder about a phenomenon that affects all of us: dreaming. We know it occurs in REM sleep, but what exactly are dreams, what are they for, and why do they occur? Recalling a dream you have just had is sometimes easy, but at other times it’s just beyond your grasp. It’s most reliably recalled if you’re woken up while dreaming, and it will be most accurately retold if it’s immediately written down.

My own dreams are very vivid, not only in content but in quality and sharpness of color, equal to or exceeding those of the best LCD or plasma screens. There’s sometimes a ridiculous or hilarious aspect that may wake me up laughing. On waking, during the transition from the dream state to reality and consciousness, there may be a brief moment of disorientation.

An eerie experience is dreaming about stopping a bad dream while having the dream (confused? you should be), i.e. “I have to wake up now because this dream is too horrible to bear.” Is that a subordinate part of the brain appealing to higher levels to take charge and put a stop to the nightmare that’s playing out? Closely related to that are dreams where there appears to be a choice between going “deeper” and waking up. These phenomena of different levels of dreaming and dreams within dreams are all well captured in Inception.

Incidentally, dreams are an important part of Darko Dawson’s life in WIFE OF THE GODS and CHILDREN OF STREET, in both of which his dreams take the form of nightmares and center around the case he is investigating. On waking up, the distinction between reality and his dream is blurred for a few scary moments and it’s his wife, Christine, who must calm him down and bring him back to the real world.

Inception brought up a number of other reflections for me. What’s the role of dreams and the subconscious in creative writing? The term subconscious is casually used in popular culture to describe a part of the mind below our conscious surface. It should be noted though that Sigmund Freud, who is most famously associated with the concepts of the conscious, preconscious and unconscious mind, did not refer to a subconscious, and it’s a word still avoided by modern psychologists.

Who knows how many novels and screenplays have been spawned by dreams? That’s probably impossible to accurately tell since most dreams are not recalled and many people don’t remember their dreams at all. But consider this scenario: you’re a novelist in the middle of creating a story. An unexpected roadblock in the plot has popped up, and you don’t know how to get around it. You wrestle with it all day long but can’t come up with a solution. Tired and disgusted by nighttime, you go to bed. The following morning, at the instant you wake up, you have the solution to your plot problem, and it’s clear as the cloudless sky. I’ve had this experience more than once. How did it occur? Were conditions during the wakeful daytime somehow not conducive to seeing a way out of the plot difficulty? Was the answer hidden or out of reach until the relative dominance of the conscious mind faded away during sleep?

Maybe. Or maybe not.

As much as we wonder how and why dreams happen as we sleep, I have an even further curiosity about what happens when I’m writing a story and seem to enter a state so profound that stimuli to my conscious mind become dimmed, perhaps even disconnected. One morning, I was at a sidewalk cafe writing my novel as I waited for my barber to show up at the barber shop, which is right next door to the cafe. At a certain point, I became aware that my barber was standing in the doorway of the shop calling my name in and asking me, “Aren’t you coming in?” In surprise, I said I hadn’t seen him arrive. Dumbfounded, he told me that he had passed right by my table on the way to open the shop and we had clearly exchanged greetings. I had absolutely no recollection of this, and initially I didn’t believe my barber, but another customer who had also been waiting nearby at the time corroborated the story. Had I gone into a dreamlike state while still awake? Perhaps a bare minimum of my conscious mind stayed behind to direct me in simple tasks like saying hello to my barber, while the rest of me plugged into a fourth or fifth dream level.

Maybe. Or maybe not.