The Psychology of Inception: Trying to Escape a Harsh Reality

Copyright Nicole Sumner, Ryerson University

In the 2010 film Inception, Christopher Nolan takes inspiration from a number of mental disorders in order to create a new world with complex characters. Nolan uses the film as a tool to mimic the experience of having a mental disorder, giving the audience a taste of what it feels like first hand to get lost in a disease and not even realize it. However, Nolan also provides us with small reminders throughout the film that what we are seeing is not our reality.



“Cobb’s recurring vision of his children, brought on by his PTSD. ” Credit: Nolan, Christopher. Inception. Film, Warner Brothers Entertainment, 2010.

In the film, Nolan utilizes a variety of mental disorders for his main characters, which become more evident as the film progresses. Dom Cobb, the main character of the film, displays the most obvious signs of a mental disorder. It is clear through the film that Cobb suffers greatly  from PTSD, which is an illness that originates from the exposure to a traumatic event or multiple events (CMHA 1). Cobb is continually haunted by a projection of his wife, Mal, likely brought on by the trauma of her suicide. In addition, Cobb experiences a recurring vision of his two children, which he was forced to abandon in the wake of his wife’s death. The vision is a symbol of his regret, as the last memory of his children were not of their faces. Due to this, he re-experiences his last day with his children, but is never able to recreate their faces.

In addition to Cobb, a multitude of other characters display forms of mental disorders or illnesses in Inception. The “Forger” in the film known only as “Eames”, displays signs of dissociative identity disorder. Dissociate identity disorder, or multiple personality disorder, is a condition where an individual has created more than one distinct personality state (Psychology Today 1). Eames has the ability to accurately portray another person by observation alone and often completely becomes this person at the extent of losing himself. In the majority of the film, Eames is portraying someone else and there are rare moments when we see what he is like when he is not forging another person. The way his character is framed, it is impossible to tell what is the “real” him and what is simply a forge or an act.

Likewise, the character of Arthur displays obvious signs of OCD or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Acting as the “Point Man” on the project, Arthur is the lead of the group and in charge of everything, including researching and development of the entire project. He is always dressed immaculately in a fancy suit, and his hair remains in place throughout the entire film, no matter the situation. He also becomes visually distressed when he realizes that he had made a mistake in his research. Due to this, he may have obsessive compulsive disorder, which involves compulsive actions such as “washing, cleaning or ordering things in a certain way” (CMHA 1).

Finally, the character of Mal is a good example of a character that displays depressive episodes. Depression is categorized as an endless feeling of despair that affects all aspects of a person’s life, especially their relationships with others (CMHA 1). After returning from limbo, Mal becomes convinced that her world is not real and therefore can no longer connect with the things or people around her. She decides that the only way to “wake up” and return to the real world is to kill herself, which is the method that the other characters use to end their dream sharing. This ultimately leads to her suicide.



So why does this matter? Why is it important to note the different mental disorders displayed in the film? Ultimately, these observations are important because they represent a larger theme of the film: escapism and self-care. Every character in the film uses their dream sharing abilities to escape or placate their mental disorders, making the dreamscape a form of psychotherapy or a coping mechanism. Furthermore, the dream world is used as a tool for escapism, which is a diversion of the mind to a “purely imaginative activity or entertainment” that allows an escape from reality (Merriam Webster 1). Rather than deal with their illnesses in a professional manner, the character utilize dream sharing to relieve themselves from the stresses of reality. For Cobb, this means creating a fantasy world where he can be with his wife forever, rather than dealing with the grief and loss of her suicide. Likewise, Eames uses the dreamscape to change into others and allow his multiple personalities to become a reality, while Arthur uses it as a tool to have control of everything around him without the fear of unforeseen situations where he may feel uncomfortable.

The use of dreamshare in Inception is used to help the character’s escape their reality, therefore allowing them to continue to feed their illnesses, rather than to get help. In the dream world, their mental disorders are seen as tools rather than a hindrance, allowing them to create something good out of what is seen as a bad thing in reality. They become dependent on the dream world as it gives them a purpose that they no longer feel in the real world. This is similar to what is known as supplementary dreams, dreams that are used as a self-healing tool that separate the dreamer from the “world of waking consciousness” (Freud 5). Nolan’s characters are using their dreams to turn their back on reality, in hopes that their problems can be fixed before they wake.



“Nolan’s use of CGI to make the dreamscape more attractive to the audience.” Credit: Nolan, Christopher. Inception. Film, Warner Brothers Entertainment, 2010.

If the world of dream sharing is a representation of the character’s inability to cope properly with their mental disorders, than Nolan’s blatant glorification of the dream world could directly translate to a romanticization of mental disorders. Nolan represents the dream world as a world of endless possibilities where one can create anything without the limitation of the “real world”. Therefore, those within the dream world develop a god-like power where they have power over everything. The characters in Nolan’s film have become completely obsessed
with the possibilities of the dream world and their dependency is evident throughout the film. For example, Nolan makes it obvious during the film that Cobb is suffering from insomnia and the only way for him to sleep is to enter himself into the dream world where he has created a copy of his wife. There is also an interesting scene shortly after meeting the young student Ariadne, where she is introduced into the dreamworld and ends up leaving due to the sheer intensity of her experience. During this scene, Cobb is convinced that she will return, as “reality won’t be enough for her now” (Nolan 1:53:21); she does inevitably return.


Therefore, it is clear to see the dependency that the characters in Inception have on the dream world and how they use it to escape their everyday reality. The dreamscape is an unhealthy coping mechanism meant to placate their troubled minds, but it in no way properly treats them for their disorders. However, despite the unhealthy nature of the dream world, Nolan chooses to portray the place as “fanciful or glamorous” (Barton 1). We are constantly reminded of the possibilities of the dream world, while being rewarded for our time with fantastical scenes and stunning visual effects. The CGI in this film is focused only on scenes in the dreamworld, with the “reality” world using traditional filming techniques. This further acts to romanticize the dream world, making it appear “better than reality would warrant” (Merriam Webster 1). By placing so much emphasis on the beauty of the dream world, Nolan is using it as a tool to take attention away from the growing mental instability of his characters. He regularly frames the dream world as a tool for Cobb to use in order to alleviate the stress of his real life, but throughout the film we see firsthand that it only serves in skewing his sense of reality and harboring demons of his past. If the dreamworld is such a bad place, then why would Nolan continually glorify it? His methods are directly related to the romanticization of the mental disorders that he is portraying in his film. The dreamworld may be an unhealthy coping mechanism that continually plagues his characters and feeds on their disorders, but that doesn’t matter because the world is also pretty. In this way, Inception speaks about a larger issue of the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and the unwarranted obsession and beauty associated with one losing their mind.



Another deeply interesting method that Nolan uses for the film Inception is his use of media. Inception is about escaping reality and using a fictitious place to forget about the issues in your everyday life. The manipulation of reality that is found throughout the movie can be mirrored with what we experience when we go to see a movie. People are manipulated by movies and much like the characters in the film, become dependant on film to provide them an escape from reality. As humans, we are constantly looking for a way to escape our reality and we do this through a variety of methods. Film is one of the most popular methods of escapism in the modern world.

What is also interesting to note is the way that Nolan frames the film to manipulate the viewer’s experience. Essentially, what he accomplishes is a mimicry of what the characters are experiencing, as we find ourselves as an audience lost in the movie as they are in their illnesses. He does this by creating a oneiroid state for the audience, where the scenes are almost kaleidoscopic, wherein “reality, illusions and hallucinations are merged into one” (Kapstan 1). Throughout the film, we are treated to scenes in both the real world and the dream world, weaved together in a way that makes sense for us. We can always determine the difference between the real and the imaginary, even though we start to favor the dream world due to its stunning visuals and exciting action. It isn’t until the end of the film that reality and imaginary begin to merge into something we can no longer classify. We believe through the entire film that we can determine what is real and what is not, however, the twist ending has us questioning everything that we just experienced. Was any of it real, or was it all just an illusion that we created? Essentially, this mirrors the same emotions that our heroes are experiencing throughout the film. Much like the audience, they too are constantly questioning their reality and the legitimacy of their surroundings. Furthermore, just like them we have become so engrossed in the imaginary that we have lost all concept of the “real”.



Despite their constant need to escape reality through their dreams, the characters in Inception are continually reminded that all dreams lead back to something in our everyday lives, rather than releasing ourselves from it (Freud 5). In the film, the character of Mal (Cobb’s wife) serves as a reminder of what is real and what is not. Mal represents what is wrong with the dream world, as her obsession and dependency on it is what caused her to commit suicide. As such, she serves as a reminder to both the characters in the film and the audience that what they are seeing is not real, and as a warning that they are losing touch of their reality. The character of Mal only shows up when the other characters are doing well, whether through exploring the possibilities of the dream world or through their plan for Inception. Whenever the other characters are doing well and are starting to feel safe in the dream

“Mal appearing when a job is going well, serving as a reminder that they are becoming too reliant on the dream world.” Credit: Nolan, Christopher. Inception. Film, Warner Brothers Entertainment, 2010.

world, she appears to remind them of the dangers of getting lost in a fictitious reality. The most notable example of this is when Ariadne is learning how to create things and manipulate the dreamworld. She begins to use places from her memories to help her in the creative process, effectively blurring the line between what is real and what is manufactured. In this moment, Mal appears and attacks her, serving as a warning to never draw from reality in her dreams ever again.


Mal also works as a tool for the audience to determine when reality is being skewed, while also preventing us from becoming lost in the fictitious. She appears to us as a reminder whenever we start to get lost in film. As soon as we start to get enthralled in the action or amazed by the possibilities of the dream world, she comes in and halts everything around her. She serves as a reminder of the reality of escapism, and is a warning to all others that becoming lost in the imaginary will cost you everything.



Therefore, Nolan uses a variety of tools in his film to create a unique visual experience for his audience. His characters display regular signs of having serious mental illnesses and use the dream world as a form of escape or a coping mechanism. Although their dependency is an unhealthy one, Nolan spends most of the film glamorizing the world to a point in which we no longer recognize the harm it is causing to the characters. Through this, we are effectively ignoring the signs of mental illnesses and continually romanticizing unhealthy coping mechanisms that are causing a further decline in mental health. However, Nolan does provide us with one reminder in the film in the form of Mal, who shows up whenever we or the characters are losing their grasp on reality. Finally, Nolan uses the medium of film to mimic the feeling of escapism and loss of reality that the characters are feeling in the film. In doing so, he is creating an inception of his own, a form of escapism within a form of escapism. This speaks to a larger connection between psychology and visual culture. In this case, visual culture is being used to help us escape our own reality, into a place where we are warned about the dangers of escapism. Nolan not only creates a romanticization of mental illnesses in his film, which further perpetuate the stigma surrounding mental disorders, but also allows us to experience what having a mental disorder is like first hand. In this sense, it is hard to tell whether Nolan’s film Inception is using visual culture to perpetuate the stigma around mental illnesses, or to educate us on them.



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