The Psychology of Inception

The Psychology of Inception

Forget what the critics told you. The target of Inception is Christopher Nolan.

You wanted another article about Inception, didn’t you?

Yeah, ‘course you did.

Consider the following quotation:

Cobb’s Law: As the length of an article about the movie ‘Inception’ increases, so does the likelihood that the article will conclude with the idea that somebody besides Cobb performed an inception on somebody else. Corollary: Theories about the plot will fill both somebodies with a character; discussions of the film’s quality will fill the former with “Christopher Nolan” and the latter with “you, the audience”.

These rules were outlined on Overthinking It by commenter Kyu, and I think they’re right on.  Almost every article I’ve read about Inception has made some mention of metatextual elements of the film—that the “constructed dreams” of the film are very similar to short movies; that an Architect is similar in job description to a film director; that Fischer, our lovable dupe, may easily be considered a stand-in for the easily-duped audience.  My favorite article on this subject is Sam Adams’s on  Check it out, if you have time.  This article implies, like most of the others on the subject, that Chris Nolan is the Architect, and he’s performing an inception on us.

It’s a fun reading of the film, this one.  Fun, yes… but completely wrong.  Call me a contrarian if you’d like, but it seems to me that if the film is performing an inception on anyone, it’s doing it to Chris Nolan.  That’s right: Nolan himself is the Architect and his own target.

Thinking of Inception is making me feel overly methodical, so here’s how this piece is going to be laid out:

Stage 1: Prove that Inception is a movie about movie-making.

Stage 2: Prove that Inception either was not designed to “incept” the audience, or, if it was, the inception was a failure.

Stage 3: Prove that Chris Nolan performed an inception on himself, and that this movie was partially about how difficult but necessary it is for artists to purge their own demons through their art.

Stage 4: LIMBO!

So, let’s start with level one.


Thesis 1: Inception is a movie about making movies.

Many reviews of and articles about Inception have made this claim, and for good reason.  Inception is about people who make dreams—no, scratch that; it’s about people who are really good at manipulating people’s emotions by creating imaginary worlds.  In other words, film directors.  Like directors, Cobb and his crew basically ignore the senses of touch, smell, and taste, focusing only on recreating visual and aural elements.  They work overtime to disguise the fact that the worlds they create are finite sets in a mental studio lot.  When they need to switch scenes, they do so with obvious musical cues.  To ensure that the emotional manipulation of the audience goes smoothly, they cast the best actors for their most important roles.

Even though the characters in Inception seem to be unaware of film history, Nolan makes obvious the fact that his film is about films: other people’s films.  He wears his influences on his sleeve: the plot is lovingly ripped off every heist movie ever made (with undertones of Hitchcock added in for extra spice).  Nolan cast Juno to play Ariadne and (purposefully or not) put Marion Cotillard on screen while playing Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien.”  Ken Watanabe, most famous in the U.S. for his turn in The Last Samurai, is introduced in an old-tyme Japanese manor in the dress of a feudal daimyo.

At the same time, Nolan references his own movies: His protagonist is named Cobb, the name of the protagonist of his first movie, Following.  Purposefully or not, Inception’s chase scenes recall chase scenes from The Dark Knight.  Level three of Fischer’s dream strongly recalls the snow-covered League of Shadows base in Batman Begins.  And so on.

If you need more convincing, read basically any article on the Internet about Inception. The piece is a good start.  Inception is a movie based on other movies that focuses on the theme of movie-making.

"Go on..."

Thesis 2: If Inception was designed to plant an idea in the audience’s head, it was a failure.

Once a film critic has decided that Inception is a movie about making movies, it generally takes him or her another paragraph to decide that the whole film is an attempt by Nolan (the Architect) to plant an idea (perform an inception) on the audience.

Okay.  If that’s the case, what’s the idea he’s planting in our heads?

I can’t figure that one out.  Is the ultimate moral of Inception that movies and dreams are similar in various ways?  But that can’t be right.  According to Cobb’s exposition throughout the film, an inception is successful when the dream-trapped target adopts an idea from an external source as his own and then—here’s the important part—changes his or her behavior based on that idea.  In other words, a proper inception affects the target’s behavior, not just his or her thoughts.  Will knowing that movies and dreams are similar affect your behavior in any way?  I somehow doubt it.

Maybe the goal of the film was to convince the audience to let go of their emotional baggage (daddy issues; dead wife issues) and move on.  If so, the movie was a failure to me, seeing as I have neither daddy issues or dead wife issues.  Anyway, according to Cobb, the best way to accomplish an inception is to make the target feel a deep emotion at the end of the inception—ideally, a deeply positive emotion.  If Nolan wanted to plant in our heads the idea that we, like Fischer and Cobb, need to let go of our emotional baggage, then Fischer’s dream-reunion with his dad and Cobb’s reunion with his kids would have had to be much more emotionally-affecting than they actually were.  For the movie to properly “incept” us, at the end of the movie, we would have to feel a deeply positive emotion.  However, Fischer’s reunion with his dad didn’t tug audiences’ heartstrings, because who the hell would care about what happens to Fischer?  He’s not a main character.  We only care whether or not Cobb and his crew accomplish their mission.  As for Cobb’s happy ending, it only would have worked as an inception had Nolan played up the sentimentality at the very end of the film.  Instead, while Cobb is tearfully hugging his kids, the camera moves away from them and focuses on Cobb’s ever-spinning top totem.  Nolan is basically saying here, “Who cares about what happened to Cobb!  Focus on the logic puzzle that is my movie!”  In short, Nolan undercuts the emotion of Cobb’s happy ending with a standard “…Or is it?”

Cobb and Nolan are right on the money, I think, when they explain how filmic inceptions work.  Personally, when I think of the movies that have changed my behavior, I think of movies like Ikiru, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Twelve Angry Men, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly… films that climax with a deep and mostly positive emotion.  Inception cannot be mentioned in the same breath with these classic films, because it’s a different kind of movie.  Inception falls into the category I like to call “Rubix Cube Films.”  These films are fun, colorful, puzzling, sometimes frustrating, and ultimately meaningless.  No one ever cries while playing with a Rubix cube.

In fact, Rubix cubs are kind of funny. Heh, Rubix cubes.

Critics seem to agree with my reaction.  The positive reviews for Inception focused mostly on its ingenious plot and mind-bending visuals.  The few negative reviews focused on the very same elements, saying that the film was too logical and that the visuals were not mind-bending enough.  I don’t recall one critic saying that the film moved him with any positive emotion.  It’s just not that kind of movie.  And if Inception isn’t that kind of movie, it can’t be incepting the audience.

"O RLY?"

Thesis 3: Nolan was not trying to perform an inception on the audience.  He was trying to perform an inception on himself.

This thesis is the hardest to prove, but I’m sure going to try.

Let’s start with this question: If Nolan wasn’t trying to plant an idea in the heads of the audience, then who was he trying to perform an inception on?  In my mind, the only possible answer is Chris Nolan.  If you make a movie that does not and cannot have an effect on an audience, then either you’re a hack who is only trying to make money, or you’re making a movie for yourself.  Because I like Chris Nolan’s movies and find them too clever to be mere hackery, I’m going to have to assume the latter.  Nolan made a movie that is more for himself than for audiences.  Like Cobb, he is both the Architect and ultimate target of his own inception.

Consider Cobb’s lesson to Ariadne in act one of the film.  Cobb shows her an image that looks something like this:

Sorry. I don't have Photoshop on my computer any more.

Anyway, the image is of an autocatalytic cycle.  Cobb tells Ariadne that this is how dreaming works.  The dreamer creates the world and simultaneously lives in it.  The dreamer’s subconscious also creates characters to inhabit this dream world.  As the dreamer moves forward in the world, he or she continues creating the world using his or her imagination.

When I saw this image in Inception and heard Cobb’s explanation, I thought, “That’s what dreaming is like, yes—but it’s more what writing is like.”  Full disclosure: In my free time, I try to write fiction.  If I were one of OTI’s better, more educated writers, I’d talk to you about the history of psychology, of the studies that prove writing can and does as therapy, of Umberto Eco’s theories of simulacra.  Today, I’m not going to do that.  I’m going to talk to you about my own experience as a writer.

If you’re anything like me, here’s what happens when you try to write a fictional story.  First, you try to build a fictional universe in a methodical fashion.  You write outlines

you mentally cast people you know to play the characters,

you come up with a good theme and an effective ending, and sometimes you even get your friends to troubleshoot the plot,

and eventually you’ve been working on your outline for so long that you forget what the real world looks like:

And here’s the worst part: Ultimately, all this planning is for naught.  Really.  It’s almost completely worthless.  Because once you start writing—once you enter the dream—all bets are off.  Your subconscious starts fucking with you.

Out of nowhere, a random train of thought infects and then wrecks your carefully-plotted first act.

Your characters start acting like they want to act, not the way you want them to act.  It turns your whole story upside down.

And when you’re finally done writing the damn thing, you find that the clever theme you had outlined has turned into a different theme—a more realistic theme—a difficult theme that hurts you to hear, because it’s far more true…  Your old theme was a moral, an Aesop, a simple idea meant to affect the behavior of your readers.  Now you find that you’ve accidentally written around a new theme, a theme from your own subconscious, a theme will make you, the writer, act differently…

I’ve heard this story over and over again from other writers.  You try to write something to affect your audiences, and then your subconscious and the characters it created end up writing something completely different.  I think Nolan works this way, too.  Just look at his movies.  No matter what creative premises and plots he comes up with, all of his movies ultimately turn out the same.  The stories are usually metatextual and told out of chronological order.  His heroes tend to be artists or artist stand-ins, and they are all psychologically wounded by something in their pasts.  At the start of each film, the hero seems to be fairly logical, but his logic fails when pitted against a psychotic and manipulative villain.  Cobb’s Mal—a.k.a. Nolan’s Jungian Shadow, the yang to his yin—always finds her way into his plots, and she almost always dies to move the plot along.  (See Belinkie’s recent article for details.) As for the rest of the characters, who cares?  However they were originally conceived, they all eventually become two-dimensional robots meant to help the protagonist solve the movie and his problems.

Inception, then, is Nolan’s most self-aware piece, because here he finally admits that he keeps writing the same movie over and over again.  Here, through the character of Cobb, Nolan admits that he is the Architect who can’t keep his own ghosts out of his art.

If Nolan has made a movie about himself as a filmmaker, then what lessons does he learn about himself?  If Cobb is a representation of Nolan, then we must figure out what Cobb learns throughout the film:

Cobb’s First Lesson: The dark parts of my mind will continue to infect my art unless I plunge deep into my subconscious and face them directly.

Cobb’s Second Lesson: The female character I keep seeing over and over in my work is not real.  She is a false image of myself, of my fears and my regrets.  I must let go of them.

Cobb’s Third Lesson: The reason I feel disconnected from the real world and my family is that I analyze them too much.  If I stop caring whether or not my world, family, and emotions are real, they will seem realer, and I will be happy.

These are the ideas that Nolan learns though his avatar (Cobb).  If his inception of himself was successful, we can expect that his next film will

1. either be much more emotional and honest (because Nolan has decided that he still needs to face the dark elements of his subconscious) or much more logical and playful (because Nolan has finally managed to purge the dark craziness from his work);

2. lack a symbolic Mal character, instead featuring a three-dimensional female character who is not killed off to keep the plot moving;

3. feature more realistic themes and characters in general, and will possibly focus more on Nolan’s children and his relationship with them.

…OR WILL IT?????


11 Comments on “The Psychology of Inception”

  1. the winchester #

    I’ve enjoyed reading these articles far more than I enjoyed actually watching Inception. And I liked that flick quite a bit.

    Good job, keep writing these. Thanks.


    • mlawski OTI Staff #

      Thank you, the winchester! I enjoy your name.


  2. David #

    Mlawski you bastard you’ve ruined inception plot catharsis for me again!!!
    it took 3 weeks post film viewing for my brain to finally rest and accept on the solution to the puzzle that nolan was performing an inception on the audience. in the process i read hundreds of articles speculating on the subject including OTI. i lost sleep, began lucid dreaming and generally became a human in limbo like state for nearly a month. then i felt it resolved when it became apparent that nolan was the architect. normally mental functions resumed, i became a productive member of society once again.

    but you’ve just gone and blown that out of the water havent you?

    oh shit, i think i’m going into limbo agai- BURRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

    (brilliant overthinking though)


  3. nata #

    great article! I agree with the first comment – reading articles about Inception is even more fun than watching the movie )))) I would say that they are even more mind challenging )))


  4. Ezra #

    This is off topic, but what does it do to a person to live in a dream for 50 years? That would mean that mentally Cobb is 85 years old, in Leo’s 35 y.o. body, so shouldn’t he have the mind of an octogenerian? Or is it something other than simply the passage of time that causes the mental changes we observe as people age? There’s a parallel event in the Lion/Witch/Wardrobe book/movie: when the kids go into Narnia, their ages range from 7 or 8 to 14–and they spend 15 years inside, so when they come out, they have mental ages of 21 to 29, yet are suddenly thrust back into the bodies and social positions of children. What is that like? Did they have sex when in Narnia? They were certainly old enough, although I don’t think there were any other humans in there.


    • elle #

      There were other humans in Archenland and Calormen. Susan almost got married to the prince of Calormen while she was there (in The Horse and His Boy), but I doubt she slept with him because that would go against CS Lewis’ delicate sensibilities.


  5. frug #

    I’ve really enjoyed all this articles and was wondering if I could make a request/suggestion for another: the ethics of the film. The movie never really addresses the fact that we (the audience) are being asked to cheer for a crew of international burglars and kidnappers who are committing high tech corporate espionage that could result in thousands and thousands of workers losing their jobs (collateral damage if you will) and destroying the relationship between an innocent man and his godfather (which is apparently said individuals only stable relationship). Just my 2 cents.

    Keep up the good work!


  6. Kyu #

    I found this to be a brilliant explanation and subsequent subversion of Cobb’s Law. And major props for coming up with a new “solution” to the film’s puzzle. It seems to hold up fairly well. And even comes with a testable hypothesis for the next Nolan film! I shall be very interested to see if you’re correct.

    I’m Kyu, and I approve of this article.


  7. eksa #

    *slow clap*
    This is my favorite interpretation. Excellent overthinking. Now I can’t wait for his next movie to come out…I hope we see a more mature Nolan film.


  8. Timothy J Swann #

    I loved this article. As a writer who woke up and found out the main antagonist of his novel had an eating disorder, this seems like a perfect interpretation!

    Nevertheless, I do not believe that the emotional side of Inception is lacking. When they open the safe, I almost cried (which for me in a movie is significant. I’ve cried in about two movies). My dad cried at the end when he sees his kids (which is less significant, my dad cried at the comparatively upbeat ending of The Road). I haven’t stopped listening to Time, the Hans Zimmer piece from the Reunion because it is so emotive.

    Looking forward to seeing if Cobb and the team have succeeded in their inception in Batman 3.


  9. Arianda #

    After reading this, I guess I better watch the movie again!

    For me, the appeal was the main concept: dreams inside dreams.

    Let me elaborate: one day, I was telling one of my IT guys about my most recent dream. It was about dreaming and waking up into another dream. In fact, it’s something I had experienced quite often. I would dream up to 5 levels. That’s right, I’d wake up into a dream, wake into another, so on and so forth, until i woke up after 5 times. On top of that, I had a knack for changing my dreams about f I didn’t like an outcome. For example, one time I was traveling in a car and while stopped, someone in another car was talking to me. I couldn’t hear them. So, I changed the dream by positioning myself so that I could hear them and converse with them.

    After I finished telling him about my dream(s), he asked if I ever saw Inception.

    I had not, nor had I heard of it.

    So, for me, the draw was seeing a movie that dealt with the type of dreaming that I had long experienced.


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