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Dream a little bigger: Why Freud would have loved the blockbuster movie, Inception…

July 23, 2010

(Minor plot spoilers, no outcome spoilers)

When addressing a controversial issue or person in consultation or in a workshop, I usually like to start with a little acknowledgment… otherwise we may not effectively move forward. So before we answer the question, “Why would Freud have loved Inception,” what comes to mind when you hear the word, “Freud”? A couch? A cigar? Analysis? A few common but erroneous thoughts or perceptions may come to mind as well.

Even (and especially) among my psychology peers there is a range of opinions on Freud’s ideas. When I ask critics if they’ve read his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, however, I would say 9 out of 10 respond, “No.” And if you haven’t read Freud’s Introductory Lectures, you probably don’t know an accurate representation of him or his theories – often not even from your undergrad psychology professor. As one reviewer on Amazon states about the collection:

“…witness Freud not as the straw man stereotype that so many despise but
as a warm, humorous man with a great deal of vision…”

I couldn’t agree more. In stark contrast to the ominous, yet, iconic head-shot that usually graces the cover, we discover a surprisingly lighthearted, even self-deprecating man with a passion for helping and de-stigmatizing people with mental illnesses. These lectures read as if Freud were speaking directly to his medical students in a lecture hall. Not only does he joke with his students, he describes some of his theories as metaphors at best and scoffs at his critics for claiming he regards the root of all mental illness as sex and aggression. Freud, in clear terms, states he does not believe this notion but, rather, regards those impulses as powerful and needing attention, despite the Victorian resistance of his day.

While a book could be written disputing erroneous stereotypes, a movie was made that is arguably a postcard tribute to his beliefs about dreams. That movie is, of course, Inception.

Freud believed two functions of dreams were (1) wish fulfillment and (2) to protect the dreamer’s sleep from disruptions in the sleep environment. Regarding wish fulfillment, he believed we used similar defense mechanisms (e.g., suppression, projection) in dreams that we use in waking life to help us avoid anxiety or suffering. Because our defenses grow more sophisticated with age, Freud decided to examine the dreams of children. Guess what he found? A lot of transparent dreams that go something like this:

Little Johnny goes to bed without getting the cookies he wanted. The next
day Johnny reports dreaming about living in “Cookieland” and eating all
the cookies he desired.

In Inception, we find the Leonardo DiCaprio and his team attempting to use this wish fulfillment, or need for conflict resolution, in the dreams of Cillian Murphy’s character – specifically a conflict with his father, which Freud would have also relished. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I mean. If not, you must!

Freud’s ideas about the sleep-protection purpose of dreams are also easily illustrated by common adult dreams. Many of us, for example, will dream about going to the bathroom when we have a strong urge to urinate in real life. We wake up surprised that we still have to go because the dream tricked us into staying asleep, believing we had relieved ourselves, rather than physically getting up. Another example is when we incorporate a loud noise, such as an alarm clock or bang in the street, into our dream storyline, again keeping us asleep. This sleep-protection benefits our health.

In Inception, we see DiCaprio helping Murphy realize he is in a dream by pointing out the strangeness of their environment. Gravity appears to shift in their environment because they are in a high speed car chase in the layer above. This shift is incorporated in his dream state, helping Murphy remain asleep without being startled.

Freud was also very fond of discussing the many layers of dreams, which feature prominently in Inception. We also see liberal use of common Freudian or psychodynamic concepts and language such as projection. In the movie, “projections” are inadvertent creations of the dreamer’s mind which attack the “visiting” dreamers in defense, forcing them out of the dream.

If you would like to delve deeper or learn about possible interpretations of your own recurrent dreams, I highly recommend Freud’s classic, Interpretation of Dreams.

You can also email, call, or Skype me for tailored consultation:
314.265.4271 [international dial +1]
Skype username: JoeMannion

Finally, did the writer consciously or unconsciously use Freud’s ideas throughout the movie? We might need some couch-time to figure that out…

Share your thoughts and dreams below in the comments section!!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2010 4:13 am

    Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

  2. June 18, 2011 3:46 pm

    For Freud to have appreciated this film – and I hold my hand up I’m 35 minutes into the film – would he not have condoned psychoanalysis as psychical theft, or at least aknowledged the possibility that deception could be inherent or possible during analysis?

    • November 26, 2012 1:53 pm

      Raincoatoptimism, thank you for the comment! I’m not sure I understand the question about psychoanalysis as psychical theft, but I’m sure Freud was keenly aware of the possibility of deception. I’m guessing we could find his thoughts on it in his writing if we searched. I also suspect Freud would have found the process and content of the deception to be quite meaningful and revealing about the deceiver. That’s analysis for you! How did you like the rest of the film?

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