Inception – An Initiated Review

Inception star Leonardo Di Caprio

Inception is the 2010 blockbuster from Christopher Nolan and starring Leonardo Di Caprio as a rather unusual burglar: he breaks into people’s dreams to steal information. This talent he uses as a highly sophisticated form of industrial espionage. The main action of the film comes from when he is challenged to break into a businessman’s mind, not to steal information – but to plant a false idea at the behest of the victim’s business rivals: the so-called “Inception” of the title. Needless to say, a lot of mayhem involving gunfire and potential brain-damage (and worse) ensues. I won’t give away the ending although anyone who is reasonably intelligent can guess what the ultimate fate of Di Caprio’s character might be. He wakes up from the dream and lives happily ever after. Or does he???

The film’s premise is an interesting one for yours truly for, being a seasoned Oneironaut, I wanted to see if it is true to life.  “What’s that?” I hallucinate that I hear you say. “How can something so fantastic be anything other than science-fiction?” Because, my imaginary friend, it happens to touch on one of my favourite subjects, that of Lucid Dreaming.

Inception and Lucid Dreaming

There is a scene early on in which Di Caprio’s character (“Cobb”) is attempting to recruit a young lady named Ariadne (played by Ellen Page) into his team, and he suddenly reveals to her that she is in fact dreaming. This causes her world to explode, though not entirely, as she is able to recover her wits and get used to existing in this dream environment.

Nolan, who wrote as well as directed the film, takes some cinematic license in this scene – and a good thing too, because otherwise to depict what actually happens when a lucid dreamer first gets lucid would not really fit into a fast-paced action thriller. Ariadne is in effect being taught to lucid dream – and picking it up extremely fast. It is possible in to learn to lucid dream oneself, however it usually takes weeks or months of practice if one is a complete beginner. Moreover when one first becomes Lucid, the surprise is enough to cause one to suddenly wake up. However, after becoming lucid several times one eventually gets used to the sensation, and remain in the dream state for some time without waking.

Ariadne then goes on to spontaneously create the landscape of the dream as she is walking along. This too is possible in Lucid dreaming although again this would take considerable practice: it is a skill which would need to be honed over many nights. To be fair to Nolan, one could say that Ariadne could have been able to do this right off the bat assuming that she had had prior coaching in lucid dreaming, possibly at the instigation of her teacher (portrayed by Michael Caine).

Drug Use

In another scene, Cobb recruits a pharmacist (who despite being Kenyan is played by an  actor of Indian ethnicity) because he can tailor-make the particular drugs that they will need for this operation. Which leads to the question: can drugs actually affect dreaming states in the manner the film suggests? Unfortunately the answer is yes.

The concoction which the *cough* African *cough” pharmacist shows is a murky brown colour suggesting it is some kind of opiate. Now it so happens that in her greatest novel The Sea Priestess Dion Fortune needed a plot device whereby the central male character was able to quickly go from being just an ordinary bloke to being able to loose the bonds of the physical world and journey in the astral. So she had him become an asthmatic. Why? Because before the invention of the Ventolin inhaler, the most effective way of relieving the symptoms of asthma was a shot of Heroin, as one of its side-effects is that it suppresses the cough-reflex. Hence: because he is under the effects of powerful morphiates he is able to loosen the bonds which the bind his astral body to his physical one.

I have not even begun to mention the vast number of entheogenic substances used in shamanism and related practices, although given that the character in Inception refers to his concoction as a “sedative,” the idea that it is in fact an opiate or morphiate is the one that seems most likely.

Shared Dreaming, Telepathy, Etc

Central to the plot of Inception is the notion that it is possible to enter someone else’s dream. Also that it is possible to communicate with one or more others within a dream – a form of dream telepathy, if you will. I have written in other blog posts that although machine-assisted telepathy might well be possible in the future, the state of the art is currently far too crude at the moment for any hope of reliability (see for example here, here and here).

Can dream telepathy occur at all? The late Montague Ullman conducted a series of experiments to investigate just that, which he detailed in his paper Dream Telepathy – experimental and clinical findings. The procedure was that a “sender” concentrated on a picture in one room, whilst a receiver fell asleep in another and reported on what dreams occurred. There were no recorded results of 100% correlation between the dreams and the target picture – however in several cases the dreamers managed to dream about key characteristics of the paintings – though without identifying the full paintings. So for example in one picture the composition of the figures was in a semi-circular arrangement: the dreamer meanwhile dreamed of a completely different scene which nevertheless featured a semi-circle prominently therein.

Clearly then there is no scientific evidence that dream telepathy can be done on a consistent, reliable basis of the kind featured in the movie. However the evidence does exist that it might nevertheless occur and could possibly be developed to a (high) degree if a group of individuals worked hard enough. Occultism already asserts that it is possible through control of the astral plane – i.e. by forming an astral image of the receiver and then speaking to it, it is possible (so occultists say) to send the receiver a telepathic message.

Inception itself

The ultimate question really is whether the film’s central premise of planting an idea into someone else’s mind is possible. I have already mentioned one scientific study which suggests that it might be possible to transmit an idea telepathically – however the most promising results suggested that only vague, general notions can be implanted this way. Note also two important factors: firstly, the participants in Ullman’s experiments were all willing volunteers; secondly the ideas were all essentially harmless* – they were just paintings and drawings of various things.

* – Well, I assume they were harmless. Ullman does not say whether he kept track of the volunteers in the years after his experiments, whether they lived euthymic lives or whether they developed psychotic symptoms, suicidal tendencies etc etc.

The film Inception concerns whether it is possible to implant a potentially harmful (or at least unwelcome) idea in the mind of an unwilling victim. From the point of view of both a writer and an occultist I must say that Nolan at least works out the most sensible method of achieving this within the frames of reference of the plot. I.e. – attempt to trick the victim into accepting the idea by making him think it was his own all along. It is the basis of “glamours,” the casting of illusions and enchantments. And of course, due to its highly manipulative and intrusive nature, an example of Black Magic of the most serious variety.

I would also say that Nolan’s idea of defence mechanisms is well observed – by simply taking a logical point of view. I once attended a talk by the scientist Rupert Sheldrake, who pointed out that there is as much evidence for saying the mind exists within the brain as there is for saying that TV programmes exist within a TV set. Yet the fact that Telepathy is not more common than it is points to two alternative conclusions: one, that it does not exist at all; or two, it does exist but it is extremely difficult to do. Assuming that the second alternative is true, I believe that the reason for the difficulty is that there is a natural bond between mind and brain which causes only one mind to be associated with the one brain and excludes all others from interfering.  Thus if one mind tried to invade someone else’s – firstly there is the difficulty of getting over one’s own Mind-Brain defence mechanism; secondly one would be naturally resisted by the Mind-Brain defence mechanism of the other person, quite possibly leading to images of violence.

A far more interesting notion, to my way of thinking, is not whether it is possible to implant a harmful idea in the mind of another person; but whether it is possible to implant a benevolent idea in one’s own mind – for example, an idea that will cause one’s life to change for the better. This is in fact the essence of real Magick. It is what occultists are trying to do all the time through works of self-transformation: some through ritual, some through more contemplative practices, whilst others through working with dreams themselves.


Filed under Comment, Supernatural

13 responses to “Inception – An Initiated Review

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  9. Chandra

    “I have not even begun to mention the vast number of entheogenic substances used in shamanism and related practices, although given that the character in Inception refers to his concoction as a “sedative,” the idea that it is in fact an opiate or morphiate is the one that seems most likely.”

    Ketamine’s an animal sedative that induces hallucinations in people – NOT one to recommend going by the literature, almost certainly not in the same breath as tried and trusted shamanic enthoegens, but maybe it was the inspiration for this?

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  11. I think we have to take the plot device of a “new drug” at face value here. There was a specific requirement that the drug not disrupt the equilibrium of the user, since “the kick” was used to break out of dream sequences. Opiates universally make you nauseous due to all the room-spinning they impart. Dissociatives like ketamine are a better fit, although they tend to have a long “coming down” period where the user has no idea who they are when used in high doses.

    More likely it would have been a GABA-acting drug similar to prescription sleeping pills. They’re known to cause intensely vivid dreams and other weird brain activity (there have been a few cases of Zolpidem actually waking up coma patients), make you sleepy (though not so much as opiates), and not make you puke until you dose yourself up pretty high.

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