July 16, 2010 -- The premise put forth in "Inception" seems fantastical, other-worldly, something out of Big Brother -- the idea that someone can penetrate another's subconscious to extract information or plant an idea.
But according to experts versed in the science of dreaming, the notion is closer to reality than sci-fi.
In the Christopher Nolan film that hits theaters today, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his cohorts attempt to plant an idea in the mind of the would-be heir to an energy conglomerate, a process called "inception." Cobb already excels in "extraction" -- in which he invades his targets' dreams and steals information -- but inception presents an entirely new challenge that makes for a blockbuster story.
The science behind Nolan's film is equally fascinating. Nolan takes the concept of lucid dreaming -- a dream in which the subject is aware that they're dreaming and can manipulate the dream -- and runs with it. Throughout the movie, Cobb forces himself to sleep by attaching his arm to a machine that looks like a vaguely ominous reel-to-reel tape player. He retreats into his dream world to reconnect with his deceased wife, Mal, effectively putting his memories of her on repeat.
That can happen in real life through the practice of self-suggestion.
"If you tell yourself, 'Tonight when I dream, I want to realize that I'm dreaming,' or, 'Tonight, I want to dream about my deceased wife,' or, 'Tonight I want to dream my next great masterpiece' -- whether it's to solve a particular problem or if it's to see a person you want to see or a place you want to see, that's the single most powerful technique," said Deirdre Leigh Barrett, professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and editor of "The New Science of Dreaming."
Controlling one's dreams has been possible for centuries -- Tibetean Buddhists practiced it 1,000 years ago; so did yogis. Nolan himself began practicing lucid dreaming and dream manipulation as a teenager and mined his own dreams to conceive "Inception."
"I wanted to do this for a very long time, it's something I've thought about off and on since I was about 16," Nolan told The Los Angeles Times last year. "I wrote the first draft of this script seven or eight years ago, but it goes back much further, this idea of approaching dream and the dream life as another state of reality."
'Inception': Will We Ever Read Others' Dreams?
Figuring out what a sleeping person is dreaming about is possible as well. Cognitive neuroscience techniques allow researchers to view three-dimensional brain scans as they happen, and methods of monitoring the subconscious continue to advance.
"The potential to image human brains non-intrusively is growing," said Barrett. "We already see content like, it looks like a person is working on math. Or the language centers are very active. It's not impossible that we would eventually have some technology to both manage what's going on in a dream and influence what people dream about."
What's more murky is the idea of dream-sharing -- that several people can engage in the same subconscious experience. While groups of dream sharers exist, evidence of dream sharing is more anecdotal than evidential.
"You'll find it in mystical works going back thousands of years," said Dr. Matthew Edlund, author of "The Power of Rest." "You'll find in some cultures that priests are thought to be able to enter into people's dreams, like a Shaman can enter into a sick person's dream and help them with their illness."
That said, it's not unheard-of to dream the same dream as someone else.
"The psychologist Carl Jung felt, and writes about this, that people's psyches are not contained and that we dream each other's dreams," said Gary Toub, director of training at the C.G. Jung Institute of Colorado. "So a husband and wife could have each other's dreams. There's some kind of fluidity in the unconscious."
The bottom line: an army of subconscious spies and thieves like Cobb and his cronies won't come together anytime soon. But what fans of "Inception" can take away from the movie is that dreams are crucial to creativity. It's little surprise that Nolan, who directed the thrilling tangle of "Memento" and the epic Batman film "The Dark Knight," says he came up with this summer's most think-outside-the-box movie while he was dreaming.
"In dreams normally, you're remaking the brain," Edlund said. "You're taking old memories and putting them together with what happened in the last 24 hours. And as we rebuild our brains at night, we create new ideas, we create creativity."
Putting Dream Controlling Tricks to Use
Deirdre Leigh Barrett, professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, offered the following tips -- known as "incubation" instructions -- for people who want to use their dreams to solve problems and increase their creativity:
Psychologists have developed incubation rituals to encourage problem-solving dreams. These usually target interpersonal and emotional problems, but they are also relevant to objective creative tasks. Incubation instructions usually include:
1) Write down the problem as a brief phrase of a sentence and place this by the bed.
2) Review the problem for a few minutes just before going to bed.
3) Once in bed, visualize the problem as concrete image if it lends itself to this.
4) Tell yourself you want to dream about the problem just as you is drifting off to sleep.
5) Keep a pen and paper -- perhaps also a flashlight or pen with a lit tip -- on the night table.
6) Upon awakening, lie quietly before getting out of bed. Note whether there is any trace of a recalled dream and invite more of the dream to return if possible. Write it down.
Sometimes the incubation also involves:
7) At bedtime, visualize yourself dreaming about the problem, awakening, and writing on the bedside note pad.
8) Arrange objects connected to the problem on the night table or on the wall across from bed if they lend themselves to a poster.