NPR logo 'Inception' And The Dream Of A Physics Of Dreams

'Inception' And The Dream Of A Physics Of Dreams

Get Into The Brood: Cobb, DiCaprio's character in Inception, is haunted by dreams of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard). Melissa Moseley/Warner Bros. hide caption

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Melissa Moseley/Warner Bros.

Get Into The Brood: Cobb, DiCaprio's character in Inception, is haunted by dreams of his dead wife (Marion Cotillard).

Melissa Moseley/Warner Bros.

We are all artists in our dreams but rarely are we scientists.

Last night I saw Inception, the new film by mega-auteur Christopher Nolan. Nolan is famous for the most recent Batman movies and while those were both blockbusters with ideas, the new movie harkens back to Nolan’s early work, Memento, that told a story (backwards) of a man with no short-term memory desperately searching for his wife’s killer. Like Memento, Inception has layers within layers and is told with such visual artistry that scenes and themes stay with you for hours after you leave the theater.  Its’ tightly paced, noir-tinged and full of amped-up chases all in service of a single, multi-layered idea:

What is real and how can you tell?

The plot revolves around dreams.  The main characters attempt to plant an idea in a wealthy young industrialists mind using their ability (never really explained thankfully) to share and sculpt his dreams.  To carry out the job the team must create a nested set of dreams within dreams within dreams.

The dreamer must dream he is dreaming.  And in the dream he dreams again.

Director Nolan uses this hall of mirrors to ask how do we ever really know which “level” we are on?  How do we recognize when we are “on top" and in reality.  Nolan’s answer, in many ways, is physics.

Every night, every human being demonstrates their profound capacity as artists when they dream.  All of us create fantastic images, brilliant metaphors and original story lines in our dreaming.  That is what makes dreams and dreamers so fascinating.  What is often most telling about a dream is its logic, a logic that defies the normal rules of space, time and laws of nature.

In our dreams we fly.  In our dreams we run in slow motion, animals talk, objects turn into people and we seem to appear and disappear into scenes of terror or staggering beauty. What makes dreams so compelling is that the laws of this world are voided in the word of the dream.

Physics is malleable.

Nolan makes explicit use of dreams and their physics. Each dream-spy carries a totem to help them distinguish the multi-level dream from reality.  These totems are physical objects whose experienced material properties — the heft of a loaded set of dice, the spin of child’s metal top — identify the real world from the dream.

Thus it is the rules of this world, the fact that there are rules, that makes it real.

Which leaves us with some questions.  Why do we experience the patterns of the world as limits, which our dreaming minds free us from?  Does this too come from experience?  Would we still dream of flying if there were no birds to show us what we cannot do?  Our mythologies (and superhero comics) are full of characters with dreamlike powers.  Likewise our concepts of heaven can also invoke freedom from physics as if in death these laws become just another form of dream logic.


What is it in the laws of physics and the patterns set by the natural world that we run from in our dreams?  Is it the very concept of law itself?  Or is the flying and "teleportation" in our dreams a bedrock for the creative processes that let us imagine these things in our collective scientific efforts?

Dream on.