A Dream Within A Dream: The Psychology of Inception

Alysha Selvarajah
4 min readJan 28, 2024
Credit(s): Stephen Vaughan via Allstar/Warner Bros, via The Guardian

“You’re waiting for a train. A train that’ll take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you. But you can’t know for sure. Yet it doesn’t matter. Now, tell me why?”

Recently, I had the chance to rewatch one of my all-time favourite movies, Inception. It follows the story of Dom Cobb (Leonardo Dicaprio), a thief who with the help of others, enters the dreams of others to extract classified information. For this particular mission, he is tasked with planting an idea within the subconscious of a rival business tycoon’s son, Fischer (Cillian Murphy). Aside from Christopher Nolan’s expert cinematography and this star-studded cast, one of my favourite aspects of the movie is inception — the idea that you can alter one’s perception (dream within a dream).

How powerful, it is to plant an idea in someone else’s mind, as if it’s their own.

But, How is This Possible?

What Inception actually demonstrates is the ever-evolving psychological concept known as memory. Most psychologists can agree that memory is a “reconstructive process” in that we can include, remove, and change details in an attempt to recollect specific experiences (Kim, 2023). This is routinely shown in how Cobb’s deceased wife, Mal is portrayed. Unlike the sweet persona many characters recall about her, in Cobb’s memories, Mal acts as a secondary antagonist, attempting to sabotage his plans. This is largely influenced by the intense guilt Cobb experiences and must battle for the movie’s duration. It is his unresolved emotions that alter the once fond memories built between him and his wife.

The Formation of Memories:

There are 3 stages to memory:

Credit(s): via Sense and Sensation
  1. Encoding: This is the 1st step, focused on how information begins to enter into the memory. How this information is harnessed varies. In Inception, it is the design of the dream world that helps draw Fischer’s attention to areas that Cobb needs him to see. Top-down processing, which includes a mixture of past experiences and biases to help categorize/understand information, is primarily used. One of the large successes in Cobb’s plan comes from the depiction of Fischer’s uncle, Peter Browning. In the dream world, the immediate recognition of his uncle provides Fischer with a sense of safety. This furthermore leads to a greater sense of pain when Fischer realizes that this version of his uncle has betrayed him (while the team has actually planted the idea in Fischer’s mind by having his now untrustworthy uncle advise against it).
  2. Storage: Once the memory is recorded, it must be maintained. In this part of the process, the memory is susceptible to change. As Cobb and his team progress deeper into their dreams, it’s key that they avoid retention error, which is when misinformation can cause a memory to be altered. They do this by constantly communicating with each other. By having various people deliver parts of the plan (eg. the Architect, designer of dreams, does not reveal the dream layout to Cobb so he can avoid jeopardizing Fischer’s memory storage).
  3. Retrieval: Now, the past memory can be recalled. Retrieval cues, which are any pieces of information that can help people retain memory, are used. For Fischer, the addition of a pinwheel in the final dream acts as a retrieval cue for a cherished, childhood memory between himself and his distant father. His dying father putting the pinwheel inside the safe (which acted as the retrieval for the original idea) allowed Cobb and his crew to succeed.

Though fictional, Inception takes elements from each of the 3 stages to present a compelling plan. However, a real psychological experiment occurred to better explain the idea of planting an idea.

The “White Bear Effect”:

“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”

Daniel Wegner, an American psychologist and professor at Harvard University, used this quote from Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky to inspire his experiment.

He informed a group of participants to think for 5 minutes, while explicitly not imagining a white bear. Should they think of the bear, they were to ring the bell. Next, he informed a second group to think, while explicitly imagining a white bear (Winerman, 2011).

On average, participants of the first group thought the white bear more than once within a minute. This led to the conclusion that by striving to avoid thinking of the idea (at least within the first 5 minutes), participants were more likely to think of it instead.

The Genius of Inception

The key to Cobb’s success comes from the fact that they utilized the “white bear effect” in the encoding step of the memory process. By introducing the original idea through his uncle’s disapproval, Fischer was better able to accept the idea.

Inception perfectly exemplifies the depth of human understanding as it relates to memory. As the field of memory development continues to expand, perhaps we may one day better exactly how memory is encoded, reducing retention errors in the process.

P.S. If you haven’t watched Inception, I hope you give it a chance!

References & Resources To Learn More:

False Memories and Inception. NeuWrite San Diego. (2014, August 1). https://neuwritesd.org/2014/07/31/false-memories-and-inception/

Harvard University. (n.d.). How Memory Works. Derek Bok Center, Harvard University. https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/how-memory-works

Hyman, I. (2010, July 23). Inception: The science of creating dreams. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/mental-mishaps/201007/inception-the-science-creating-dreams

Kim, J. (2023, November 13). Memory [PowerPoint slides]. McMaster University, AvenueToLearn.

Winerman, L. (2011, October). Suppressing the “white bears.” Monitor on Psychology. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/10/unwanted-thoughts