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Inception?

    Whoa, Inception, what a ride! This movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio grabs hold of your head and won't let go! Was I able to follow the plot line? Of course not, but that's hardly the point in this non-stop sci-fi action thriller. Leave your logic at the door and just let director Christopher Nolan take you away.

You can gather the stats about cast, crew, and all that at Wikipedia. What people are asking me is, "Is Inception real? Is it possible to have a dream within a dream within a dream?"


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Maybe you've had the experience of waking up, getting out of bed and starting to do something, only to wake up again and realize that you had just dreamed that you had woken up. That gives you a hint as to what Inception is all about. Having a dream within another dream, within another and yet another, all the while feeling that everything is absolutely real.

Of course, that idea is hardly new. The Chinese philosopher-poet, Zhuangzi Zhou, (369 B.C.E. - 286 B.C.E.) wrote:

Once upon a time I, Zhuangzi Zhou, dreamt I was a butterfly,
fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. . . .
Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again.
Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly,
or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.

Zhuanggzi Zhou's dilemma is a central theme in Inception, as the characters' lives depend on determining whether the reality they experience is actual reality, or if it's just all in their heads. Or perhaps, in some one else's head.

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So is it all possible? We've heard a lot about lucid dreaming, the ability to become aware, while dreaming, that one is dreaming and then being able to change the outcome of that dream. We also know that some people are able to "incubate" a dream. All that requires is a suggestion and focus on a certain idea, so that the idea turns into a dream during sleep. And everyone knows that scientists have been tinkering around in sleep labs for decades, tapping into subjects' subconscious minds with electronic tracers and brain imaging technology. Who knows what they really might be able to do by now? Maybe they know more than they're telling . . .

inception 3.jpg So, would it be possible to have an experience like that in the movie Inception? Let's say a person is really, really good at lucid dreaming. Could that person go into another level of dreaming from the first dream? Then go into yet another level deeper than that? And with each level of dreaming, would time really slow down, so that this person could live for years during a single night?

Before answering that, we need to think about what sleeping and dreaming are all about. When a person falls asleep, even a person who is really good at lucid dreaming, that person's conscious mind goes into resting mode, and different areas of the brain, areas of the subconscious mind, become active. That's what all the work in those sleep laboratories with the brain scanning is about. Like any other organ of the body, the brain needs to rest.  That's something no one ever talked about in Inception. No one ever seemed to get tired no matter how wild the action became or how long they were dreaming. So there is one piece of the movie that is pure fiction. Real people need real sleep so their minds can rest.

While the conscious mind is resting, the subconscious mind becomes active within different areas of the brain. Dreams then are produced by the subconscious mind. Oh, yeah, we saw plenty of that in Inception. Except that real dreams are all about the dreaming person's self - the dreamer's thoughts, feelings, hormones, and fears. Actual dreams are also chaotic. They don't need to obey the laws of physics, just as we saw when Ellen Page's character folded the city street back on top of itself. But that was the only hint of chaos in Inception. Even in the scenes without gravity, everything followed the physical laws of gravity-free spaces. Not so in real dreams.

Then there is that logarithm of dream time becoming increasingly compressed, giving the dreamer hours instead of seconds, and a lifetime in a night's sleep. Wouldn't that be terrific? But actual dreams don't follow any rules, much less predictable logarithms. Actual dreams might consume hours while feeling like only moments. That would have put quite a wrinkle into DiCaprio's scheme.

inception 5.jpg Finally, there is the basic underlying concept of Inception, that of sharing another person's dream. By the way, back in 2006, the Japanese anime film Paprika from director Satoshi Kon explored the identical idea; maybe that's where the whole concept for Inception originated.

In Inception, five or six people are linked together with unexplained intravenous tubing that is in turn connected with a device in a silver attache case. This mysterious technology supposedly causes them share the same dream. In the similarly strange world of the Internet, mass marketing and book publishing, there are people who claim to be able to "dream walk," much like the characters in Inception but without any technology or tubing. These real-life characters say they can "walk into" another person's dreams at will, interact with them, alter their dreams, even have dream sex with them. Could it be true? And if dream walking is real, then why can't something like Inception be real?

Let me put it this way. We need to perfect the technique of the Vulcan mind-meld. We've all seen Mr. Spock do that, and compared to Inception, Star Trek is old technology.

So, first the Vulcan mind-meld, then we'll move on to Vampiric hypnotic body-mind-spirit control. (Really old technology.) By the time we get those perfected, we might be ready to stick tubes in our veins and start working on Inception. Until then, well, it's all science fiction.