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Sleep Science and Inception

Michelle Rafferty, Publicity Assistant

It starts with a simple question: Did the totem fall? And then turns into a mind warping exercise of  “who incepted who whom?” and “how much was a dream? Am I dreaming?” Christopher Nolan’s Inception has given us hypothesizing hemophilia, for the moment at least. But for some people our real, sans IMAX dreams are enough to sustain a lifetime of “what ifs.”

Dr. Rosalind Cartwright has dedicated her entire career’s work to studying sleep, and in her new book The Twenty-four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives she proposes a new theory on the confluence of our dreaming and waking selves. Here Cartwright reveals the scientific truths behind Inception and why, once we resolve Leo’s unconscious self, we should start tending to our own.

1.) In Inception, Ellen Page plays a “dream architect.” Can we actually influence what people dream about?

That answer is: A little. If I drip water on you while you are in REM sleep (when most dreaming happens), you may tell me you dreamt it was raining. You would already have a dream story of your own creation going on but the water can be added to that dream as “Suddenly as I was trying to escape from this guy it started raining.” If I play a tape with the name of the love of your life over and over, you may begin to dream of that person. But what you dream of that person is what your unconscious needs to express about them. Dreams have an imperative of their own and resist our meddling.

2.) In the film, dream death automatically brings the dreamer back to consciousness. I’ve heard that we always have to wake up before that moment of death in a dream. Is that true, can we not “die” in our dreams?

Death is not a common theme in dreams—unless you are elderly or very ill when death is a topic on your waking mind—and we do not often dream our death occurs even when we are falling from a height. We typically wake ourselves up before we hit the ground because our unconscious memory bank has no helpful images stored to handle the emotion in the dream. But others do dream of their own funeral or see themselves dead in the hospital. These dreams are rehearsals in fantasy for what is to come.

3.) The Inception crew can only escape from a multi-layered dream (dream within a dream, within a dream…) through a carefully engineered “kick” or that leg jerk that wakes us up when we are dream free falling. Why is the “kick” so common an experience in sleep?

This is very common especially as we are falling asleep and the muscles relax. We often experience the need to resist that falling sensation and “save ourselves” by abruptly tightening the muscles again. This is called the hypnic jerk. It is a normal response and benign, except that we have to start over to fall asleep again and another hypnic jerk may happen again.

4.) Through a special machine the crew can enter one subject’s unconscious together. Is this something that people actually think could be possible? Has there ever been any record of people sharing dreams?

Very occasionally identical twins who share so much common experience will have dreams that are very similar. Also people who share their waking experiences and tell each other about how they feel about it will have similar dreams on the same night. The next day one can finish the dream story the other is telling because they have had the same dream. None of this is magic or even science. We can know WHEN you are dreaming by monitoring your sleep and how LONG your dream lasts, and even how exciting it is, but not WHAT you are dreaming unless we wake you up and then you tell us the plot of the dream story.

5.) Debates about Inception call into question the line between reality and dreams, where each begins and ends, and our blurring of both. It is fun for us to wonder what is reality and what is not—in film and in our own lines. But what is the truth about this line? What differentiates our unconscious and conscious selves?

Our conscious and unconscious minds are both working in parallel while we are awake. Some artists, poets, script writers and other outside-the-box thinkers have “thinner” boundaries between the two and use their unconscious thinking to be creative in their work. They use their unconscious minds productively, they free associate easily. They day dream about a question on their mind and try new approaches. Others keep conscious and unconscious thought strictly separated and feel more comfortable working where there is one right answer. They tend to have a hard time understanding others who are different from themselves. They are said to have “thick” boundaries. These folks focus narrowly on a task using traditional methods and block out other thoughts they see as distractions.

We know this difference in everyday life from when we are stuck trying to remember something. When we turn away to do something else  our unconscious is still searching and the answer will pop up in consciousness later and surprise us. That is the contribution of our unconscious thinking during waking. In sleep we often wake up with the answer as the unconscious has been working all night without the distractions of the conscious thinking of the day.

Can we train ourselves to court the unconscious to be useful? I think just remembering to give it a chance to work by shifting attention when stuck before going back to the problem is helpful. But dreams are even better and the trick is to learn to remember them. Go to bed with the intention to remember your dreams. When you wake up in the morning, lie still, eyes closed, and don’t move a muscle. This prolongs the REM state. When you have the last image well in mind, give it a title. Then write it down and more of the dream will come into memory spontaneously.

Recent Comments

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  5. Amy

    Writing down my dreams has helped me pull in more fragments that I otherwise would have lost. Once I started doing that simple exercise, I found that I was able to piece together more of my dream memories. Inception was such a fun movie and it really made me think about my own personal lucid dreaming experiences.

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