Layers of Illusion and Schizophrenia in Christopher Nolan’s Inception

Despite its unquestionable complexity, Inception is probably the single fan-favourite Christopher Nolan film. This might be due to Leonardo DiCaprio starring in it, but it is certainly also due to the captivating topic of going through multiple layers of dreams within the human consciousness. In this essay I am going to attempt an inherently psychological approach at Inception, focusing on illusion and the loss of reality, which in the movie culminate in the vast lostness of Limbo.

In its broadest terms, Inception is the story of Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who had to leave his children after having been accused of killing his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). He works as a corporate spy, extracting critical information by means of a dream-sharing technology. The Japanese businessman Saito hires Cobb, not to extract an information from somebody, but to plant an idea into somebody’s mind – which is called an inception. The target of Saito’s operation is Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), the son and heir of Saito’s terminally ill rival Maurice Fischer. Planting this idea into Robert Fischer’s mind would cause him to break up his father’s empire after his death, allowing Saito to regain economical power on the market. In return, Saito promises Cobb to purge his criminal record so he will be able to return to his children.

The idea of “creating” dreams by architecting their physical properties is probably one of the movie’s most fascinating features. The fantasy space of the dream allows for unlimited freedom of creative outlet, defying the laws of physics and even allowing for paradoxical constructions like infinite loops. The dreams need to be created as mazes. They need to be as complex as possible to prevent the dreamer’s subconscious from identifying the intrusion and reacting against the perpetrator. In Inception, Cobb is no longer able or rather no longer willing to architect dreams, since the projection of his deceased wife is still haunting his subconscious and thus keeps sabotaging him. That’s why he lets somebody else build the dreams they work in, as to prevent Mal from knowing and spoiling the plan.

An Idea is like a Virus

The difficulty with implanting an idea in someone’s mind is, as Cobb’s partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Lewitt) explains, that “The subject’s mind can always trace the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake.” But Cobb says that’s not true. He knows a way to circumvent the subject’s subconscious, so that he believes the idea was his. Two criteria must be fulfilled: firstly, “you have to go deep enough,”and secondly “you need the simplest version of the idea.” As Cobb explains, “An idea is like a virus, resilient, highly contagious. The smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.”

How does this happen in Inception? The movie presents two instances in which an inception takes place. The second inception happens to Robert Fischer – that’s what the whole mission is about. But the first inception happened when Cobb implanted the thought in Mal’s mind that her reality wasn’t real.

Why did Cobb do that?

Cobb and Mal had the wish to spend all of their lives together. They went into the dreams to share and build their own fantasy world. To be able to spend more time together, they went deeper up until Limbo, which is the 4th layer. Cobb calls it “unconstructed dream space (…) raw, infinite subconscious”. Since the perception of time is extended with every layer, Limbo is the layer where time is the most extended. Cobb and Mal had spent over 50 years in Limbo, building entire cities and growing old in their shared fantasy.

But at a certain point, Cobb became aware that they were lost in Limbo and needed to escape, to get back to reality. In the mechanic of the movie, you can get out of Limbo only by dying. Mal wouldn’t accept that they had to leave their shared fantasy and locked her totem away. The totem is an object that does a specific movement which only the owner knows, to function as a safeguard to make sure whether the owner is in a dream or in reality. It basically works as an anchor in reality. By locking her totem away, she “chose to forget” that the world she built with Cobb was not real. Thus he implanted in her the thought that her reality was not real, to make her finally agree to commit suicide in Limbo in order to return to reality with Cobb.

Cobb and Mal chose fantasy instead of reality. They chose fantasy so they could live in their self-created love bubble, which is essentially a narcissistic bubble. A narcissistic bubble is a shared fantasy between two narcissistic personalities in which they establish a so-called “dual mothership” relationship. This is attained through reciprocative co-idealization as the perfect mother. Both parties take on the role of the ever-nurturing mother for each other to create a co-dependent relationship-fantasy in which they can never be deserted.

The Dual-Mother Fantasy

Humans do this to counter deep engrained feelings of not being worthy of love due to childhood neglect. When this neglect or abuse during the childhood causes an unbearable amount of pain, we suffer a psychotic breakdown, a break from reality. The pain of perceiving ourselves as not worthy of love fills us with shame for who we are. To hide that shame, we compensate by creating a fantasy in which we are all-powerful, and all-lovable, and other grandiose versions of ourselves. Both versions are false, for neither of them is grounded in reality.

Just like too many layers of fantasy in Inception can lead to Limbo, where our consciousness gets lost and becomes unable to return to reality, so does repeated trauma cause further dissociation from reality. The idealized vision of ourselves that we create is just as false as the inner feelings of shame we try to compensate with it. Hence we stay stuck in an inaccurate model of the world. This causes us to continually collide with reality due to our faulty map. But if we are unable to bear the pain of reality, we fail to correct our map and only fall deeper and deeper into our false map. As I already quoted in the essay about Interstellar, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said: “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” At the end of to many layers of neurosis waits psychosis, namely shizophrenia.

Schizophrenia, contrary to common useage, does not mean “split personality” – at least not primarily. It means dissociation from reality. That’s why schizophrenic people often need to act out things like letting something fall from a window, to see whether it falls or not – which, as you can see, is the exact same mechanism of how a totem works in Inception. You do something to see in the reaction whether what you see is real. Sometimes schizophrenic kill people because they believe that they won’t really die. The point is that because their self-image oscillates between between self-loathing and grandiosity, they have lost touch with reality.

The Sponsoring Thought

And this is exactly the trap in which Mal falls. Having lived in Limbo for 50 years with Cobb, he plants in her mind the idea that her reality isn’t real. The only escape out of Limbo is death. They escape Limbo together, but in the real world, the idea he had planted in her mind is still ruling her. She keeps doubting her reality and seeks death to get back into the real world. As Cobb says: “An idea is like a virus, resilient, highly contagious. The smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.”

Now let us come back to both ideas that are being incepted in the movie, and take a deeper look at them. The fact that “the smallest seed of an idea (…) can grow to define or destroy you” shows that Cobb is talking about fundamental beliefs. The author Neale Donald Walsh calls this “the sponsoring thought”. The sponsoring thought is not the consciously held thought, but the unconscious thought behind it: “This is the thought, behind the thought, behind the thought. It is the first thought in its prime force.” In our example, a person who overcompensates for her own lack of self-love will delude herself into thinking that she totally loves and accepts herself. But the sponsoring thought behind this thought – the true thought – is that she really does not deem herself worthy of love – which is why she creates her grandiose self-fantasy. Either way, the incepted ideas need to be such a simple, sponsoring thought, to be able to take.

Mal’s idea, that her reality wasn’t real, led her to commit suicide because she believed that killing herself would wake her up in the real world. This is the argumentation that Cobb’s projection of her keeps using against him in their last confrontation. She tries to gaslight him into believing that he doesn’t believe in one reality either – so he might aswell just choose the one that feels more pleasant: the one with her.

But Cobb is driven by his need to return to his children. His children are what keeps his wish alive to return to the real world. His sense of responsibility for his children is that which forbids him to deceive himself for the sake of the bliss of staying with Mal. His thought is unselfish and driven by love, while Mal’s wish to stay in the “dual-mother-bubble” with Cobb is utterly selfish and not real love. Her version of love is to use Cobb for her own pleasure. But the aim of Cobb’s love is outside of himself. The firmness with which she believes in the truth of her illusion is an expression of her grandiosity, while his ability to sincerely doubt himself is his redeeming humility. Mal is not anchored in reality anymore, but instead lives in the solipsism of her own self-righteousness – because she is still living the the narcissistic bubble. And that is why she is doomed to destroy herself.

An Idea can Grow to Define or Destroy You

Now let us finally direct our attention to the other inception. Robert Fischer had led a life in which he always felt as if he could not live up to his father’s expectations. He, too, felt painfully unloved by his parent. That’s why he tried to become like his father. At his deathbed, his father says that he is disappointed. But in the dream sequence in which Cobb performs the inception on Robert, there’s a twist that causes the cathartic reaction. His father tells him that he was disappointed that Robert tried to be like him, instead of being his own man. Thus the implanted sponsoring thought is that Robert’s father loved him for whom he is, for his individuality with all its faults.

I hope it is now visible how the two incepted thoughts are diametrically opposed. In life, there are essentially two basic views to go through the world with: One consists in a solipsistic perspective, which is an overcompensation for the unacknowledged shame of feeling unworthy of love. This perspective leads deeper and deeper into neurosis and to “become an old man, filled with regret”. The other one is the perspective in which we see ourselves as lovable for who we are, with all our faults. Feeling loved by the father needs to be taken in a symbolical way. It is not merely about Robert Fischer and his father Maurice. Robert’s experience, that his father loves him for who he individually is, is cathartic because we subconsciously see ourselves either loved or despised by God Father. I would even go so far as to claim that almost every mental illness can be cured through this simple fact of accepting that God Father loves us the way we are, which is why he created us this in this specific way. It entails an acceptance of our own faults – though not a justification for bad behaviour. It means that we are born with faults and mistakes, but that we are bound to become masters over them: through real spiritual growth that is not only a product of our fantasy, but grounded in reality.

Grounded in Reality

Cobb’s awakening from the final kick is one of the most intense scenes in movie history. Even if you didn’t watch the movie, this scene fills us with awe and the sense of something meaningful happening, with hardly any dialogue. The alertness on Cobb’s face, oscillating between the doubt whether his experience is real or still a dream – and his eagerness to see whether Saito is going to fulfill his promise. The little mimical gestures of the various characters that convey an overarching understanding of what has ACTUALLY happened, really and truly for everyone to comprehend, without anyone speaking a single word; and of course the tension in Hans Zimmer’s wonderful music.

Inception’s final scene draws a diagonal line between the totem in the bottom left corner of the screen, and Cobb finally reunited with his children in the top right hand. Despite the claims that the ending is ambiguous, Cobbs totem visibly loses its spin and is obviously going to fall. The self-sacrifice for his children’s sake is that which kept him grounded in reality.

Despite all this, the unresolved and most important question in Inception is: If it rained in Yusuf’s dream because he had to pee for drinking too much champagne, does that mean that after he splashed the car into the river he wet himself?

Thank you for reading, and please share your thoughts about Inception and the ideas developed in this essay.

One thought on “Layers of Illusion and Schizophrenia in Christopher Nolan’s Inception

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.