Inception: How Trauma Creeps Into Our Brains

Inception: how trauma creeps into our brains

Inception is a 2010 American science fiction film  written, produced and directed by Christopher Nolan, a British filmmaker known for his psychological themes in his films.

Inception takes us to a dream world, the subconscious mind, and the way traumas project themselves here. The film was a huge success and people all over the world disagreed about the ending.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a dream expert who can extract dreams from people while they sleep. It’s not exactly like entering a dream.

What he does do is create a shared dream, implementing a plan. A whole team is involved: a dreamer, an architect – who designs the dream – and the person from whose subconscious they are trying to extract the dream.

There are also other people who appear in the dream. However, they are nothing more than subconscious projections of the person whose mind they have entered. The projections try to defend themselves against the changes they see, and sometimes they become violent.

This especially happens with people who have taught themselves not to allow others into their heads. Christopher Nolan’s inspiration did not come from a particular theory, and does not follow specific research. Instead, he took his inspiration from multiple theories, and created his own dream logic.

Implementing ideas

But Dom Cobb can not only extract information from someone else’s subconscious, he can also put an idea into it. This is what they call inception in the movie  . This use is much more risky, and the consequences include insanity or obsession with the person in question.

The problem is that you have to go through three dream levels to get it right. The person must believe that the idea comes from within themselves – they must never get the idea that someone else posted it.

The movie shows us that all these dreams are all fake, they are all fabricated. Inception does not dig into the nature of the dreams themselves, for the dreams exist for a specific purpose.

This time, Dom Cobb and his partners must put an idea in the mind of an heir to a business empire so that the competitor can rise. Inception is definitely a thriller,  taking us to the dream world with an action packed plot.

The structure of dreams in  Inception

Inception takes you through several awakened dreams that Cobb and his team enter to obtain something. There are three ways to get the most out of your dreams:

  • when they come to an end, that is, when you wake up
  • if you die in the dream, but not in reality
  • the kick, the moment you feel like you’re falling and waking up

In  Inception   , the kicks are always synchronized, and the same song plays:  Non, je ne regrette rien.

There are multiple dream levels in the dream, all of which are nestled together. To get to the original, you have to go through different dream spaces, after which you get into that person’s subconscious, and can place the idea.

To reach those levels, that person must be given a strong sleep aid so that he or she will sleep deeply. The biggest problem is that they sleep so deeply that even dying can’t wake them up. In this case, they go to a dream space known as  limbo.

Dream city from the movie Inception

Time moves very slowly in limbo. So slow, in fact, that it feels like it doesn’t pass at all, infinitely, to the person who is in it. The time in our dreams is not the same as when we are awake – 10 minutes in the real can feel like hours in the dream.

When you dream, you experience everything as if it were real. In this film you see that pain continues in our minds, and that everything we feel in dreams feels real. If you get hurt in the dream, the pain in the dream will be real. Being in limbo makes you feel like you’ve always been there.

They have to avoid dying in the dream because although it is not real death, they enter a new dream level where they think they have lived a whole life. The structure of dreams in  Inception is very similar to that of a Russian Matryoshka doll. The deeper you are in the dream, the longer it seems.

In reality, you sleep ten hours. They spend a week in the first dream level. In the second level they are six months. Finally, at the third level, they spend ten years.

The idea behind this structure resembles that of Lacan and Sausurre. These are both writers who developed linguistic theories, seeing dreams as subordinate clauses. In other words, they are inside each other.

the totem

To make sure they don’t go crazy, and that they always know whether they’re dreaming or not, Cobb and his team have a totem. It is a personal, non-transferable object that they know in detail: the weight, the texture, the color… they use this totem to determine whether they are dreaming or not, because it can change during the dream.

For example, the weight may change, or the way it falls to the floor. It is vital that only one person knows all its features so that no one can mess with their mind in the dream. And of course also to always have a way to check if they are awake or not.

Dom Cobb in the movie Inception

The Projection of Trauma Inception

The word trauma comes from Greek and means wound. That is why we speak of trauma as emotional wounds that have left a mark on someone. Moreover, Traum is the German word for dream.

Freud was one of the first to explore how trauma manifested itself in our subconscious mind. According to him, we access our subconscious through dreams where our traumas are disguised or blocked.

Deepening that idea further, these traumas would have some kind of symbolic representation in our dreams. In other words, you have to interpret them through their disguise.

There are no such symbols in Nolan’s film. The unconscious defends itself against possible invaders, but it is not a place full of ‘disguised’ trauma. Here it is a place where people protect their ideas and the projections attack invaders.

To go deeper into the film we need to give some spoilers, so you should probably stop reading now if you haven’t seen it yet.

Image from the movie Inception

These projections are usually people they know. In Cobb’s case, his late wife constantly appears in his dreams, sabotaging his plans. This projection is not only his image of his wife, it is also a reflection of himself.

Cobb has conflicting feelings about her death. He feels guilty, sad and frustrated. Maybe he can hide that in real life, but not in his subconscious. It’s no surprise, then, that his wife even appears in these preformed dreams.

At this point, Nolan is heading more towards the Jungian side. All these projections of the subconscious come from Cobb’s ego, from within itself. Not only does he see his wife, he also sees his guilt for her death.

Jungian ideas are also addressed through the labyrinths in the film, as part of Jung’s theory was that the structure of a dream is very similar to the structure of a labyrinth.

Dreams were once seen as a mystical part of life. Later, people discovered rational explanations that led to many different theories. In  Inception , Nolan takes bits of all these theories and expresses his own vision when it comes to what dreams are. 

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