Shattering Subconscious Isolation: Inception, Lucid Dreaming and the Collective Unconscious
The upcoming sci-fi movie thriller by Christopher Nolan, Inception, raises many fascinating questions that experienced lucid dreamers (those who become consciously aware of dreaming while in the dream state) have wrestled with for decades:
- If you become consciously aware of dreaming, can you lucidly enter another's dream, or bring them into your dream?
- If they share unknown information with you, would this provide evidence for a shared or mutual dream?
- And if that information proves to be valid, what does that say about the nature of reality?
- Do dreaming minds have access to an individual or collective unconscious where they share information?
The plot of Inception portrays a talented lucid dreamer, who brings unsuspecting dreamers into a mutual dream environment and then "extracts" information from his or her subconscious. The lucid dreamers in Inception rely on a special machine, PASIV and a special drug, Somnacin, to achieve a stable lucid dream realm and enact their underhanded (or under-minded) deeds.
Inception's basic premise resonates with many experienced lucid dreamers who have empirically investigated these questions of gathering information and interacting in an apparent shared or mutual dream. Though complex, the simple answer to the above questions appears to be "Yes. Lucid dreamers have provided numerous instances of acquiring unknown information while consciously aware in the dream state."
In the movie's dialogue, Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) explains the three stage approach to ensnaring another's subconscious information while lucid dreaming. "We create the world of the dream," Cobb tells his understudy. After creating a stable lucid dream, "We bring the subject into the dream." Next comes the finale, "And they fill it with their secrets."
Nolan's cinematic version of shared dreaming offers a glimpse of what actually happens, according to some experienced lucid dreamers, possibly because Nolan appears familiar with lucid dreams. In an April 4, 10 LA Times interview with Geoff Boucher, Nolan comments on the reality of the lucid dream state.
"You can look around and examine the details and pick up a handful of sand on the beach," Nolan said. "I never particularly found a limit to that; that is to say, that while in that state your brain can fill in all that reality." As to the plot of Inception, he adds, "I tried to work that idea of manipulation and management of a conscious dream being a skill that these people have. Really the script is based on those common, very basic experiences and concepts, and where can those take you? And the only outlandish idea that the film presents, really, is the existence of a technology that allows you to enter and share the same dream as someone else."
Nolan correctly observes that nothing keeps a lucid dreamer from trying to interact with other dreamers in the dream state, and obtain information. In fact, many lucid dreamers have tried this, and some achieved stunning results. Let me share a few examples from my book, Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self, in which lucid dreamers "extract" secret information while consciously aware in the dream state.
A talented lucid dreamer and university student, Ian Koslow, wrote me in 2006 to ask if I truly believed a lucid dreamer could obtain verifiable, unknown information when lucid dreaming? I suggested that he should devise an experiment that will prove or disprove the ability to get unknown, verifiable information in the lucid dream state -- and then try it in his next lucid dream.
A month later, Ian surprised me by submitting a lucid dream in which he did just that. He writes, "I was talking to a girl in my dorm about lucid dreaming, and we were discussing whether or not the people you see in the dream are actually real, or just imaginations. To test this out, we decided to do a little experiment."
The young woman told Ian that she had "an awkward looking freckle" on her back, and she invited Ian to locate her strange freckle in the lucid dream state. Within a week, Ian had two lucid dreams, and recalled the task. In the first lucid dream, he could not make it to her room due to distracting dream figures. But in the second lucid dream, he consciously requested that the woman come to him, and suddenly she entered his room. He recalls, "I finally found her in my lucid dream and searched her back until I saw a dark freckle on her lower back, dead center, right above her ass. I remember thinking during the lucid dream that there was no way this could be the right spot, because I thought I remembered her hinting to me that it was on the side of her back."
Waking with this lucidly sought information, he went down to her dorm room and told her of his discovery. "I went up to her back and pointed my finger at the spot that I saw it in the dream, and to both of our surprise, she lifted up her shirt and my finger was directly covering her freckle. Now, I have no idea what this means, but I don't think it's just a coincidence that I happened to guess exactly where the lone freckle on her back was. All I could think is that the power of lucid dreaming might be more then I imagined."
Notice how the freckle doesn't appear on the side of her back where he thought she hinted it might be; instead, he found it deep down on her lower center back. Notice, too, how in the lucid dream he thinks, "there was no way this could be the right spot" because it runs counter to the suspected hint that he already considered. Thankfully, when he visits the young woman, he points to the exact place indicated in his lucid dream. He follows the lucid dream information faithfully. (pg 177-8)
Another talented lucid dreamer, Clare Johnson, consciously sought telepathic information while competing in the annual Dream Telepathy Contest conducted at the International Association for the Study of Dreams (IASD) conference. This educational event is an outgrowth of the scientific investigation into dream telepathy, conducted by Montague Ullman, MD, Stanley Krippner, Ph.D., and Alan Vaughan in the 1960's and ‘70's. Their book, Dream Telepathy: Experiments in Nocturnal ESP, summarizes the fascinating findings in support of dream telepathy.
On the night of the Dream Telepathy Contest, Clare became aware that she was dreaming and sought to find the "telepathic sender" who was telepathically transmitting an image (earlier in the evening, the "sender" had selected one sealed envelope with an image from a group of four sealed envelopes, and retreated to her room to open the envelope and transmit the image to contest participants). Before falling asleep, Clare incubates the desire to get in touch with the telepathic sender and discover the target image.
her dream, Clare notes, "I am wandering around with IASD members, commenting on
the greenness. In the distance, a woman's voice is shouting 'Tree! Tree!' as if
she has just discovered the answer to some fundamental question....Later [in the
dream], we are all at the conference site in a high-ceilinged room, discussing
the dream telepathy contest. I see Beverly [the telepathic sender] across the
and know that I'm dreaming this. Beverly looks cheerful but I think
she's got to be tired since she must be having a sleepless night trying to
transmit the image. I ask her how she is feeling. She flings her arms out,
grinning, and says, "I've just been shouting the word inside my
"That's interesting," I say, "because in my last dream, people were shouting about trees." I want to ask her outright if tree is the image she is projecting, but think this might be cheating. A woman across the room says excitedly, "I've been getting that, too. Tree shouting." We get into a discussion about the nature of greenness. Is green a positive or negative colour? We agree that it is both dark and light. Deep and beautiful.
.... Then, very slowly, I wake up. I am smiling in the dark. 'The telepathy picture really might be a tree,' I think."
Upon waking, Clare finally visits the Dream Telepathy Contest table, where all four images are revealed; however, only one is the "target image." She comments, "When I get to Registration with the slip of paper upon which I scribbled down my dream, there are three images which don't resonate with me at all, and on the end is a picture of the tree I tried to draw in my dream." Clare selects this image and includes her dream report.
A few days later, Clare discovers that she won the Dream Telepathy Contest. Moreover, "I was intrigued to learn that Beverly did actually shout about trees inside her head while attempting to communicate the image. This experience has given me food for thought concerning receptiveness in lucid dreams." (pg 179-80)
The next real-life example touches on the plot twist of Inception, where Cobb must go beyond merely extracting information from another while lucid dreaming - he must "implant" an idea into another's subconscious without them being aware of it. If Cobb can do this "implanting" successfully, he will win his freedom.
In this personal example, I manage to "implant" an idea into another dreamer's subconscious, which she then showed me in the waking world. My lucid dream from November 24, 1998, begins as I lucidly observe the inside of a restaurant, "...when I see my friend, Moe, come inside. She's wearing a white t shirt and black pants. I ask her if she realizes this is a dream. She seems just a little bit alert, so I walk her around a bit. Then I decide to hold her and levitate (to convince her we dream). I keep saying, ‘See, we're floating! This is a dream.'"
Trying to make some impact on her, I get the idea to make a peace sign with my fingers. Putting them in front of her face, I say, "Look, Moe, do you see this peace sign? Every time you see it, it can make you become lucid -- you'll know you're dreaming." Again, I put the peace sign right in front of her face." I wake.
Four months later, I'm traveling on business on the West Coast and call Moe to see about having lunch. We make plans to meet. Arriving early, I wait outside the restaurant, and at last, I see Moe coming down the sidewalk. As she walks up to me, she gives me a curious look -- then suddenly, she reaches up and puts a big peace sign right in front of my face!
I feel completely stunned! I had recalled the lucid dream earlier in the day, but had never mentioned it to her. Shocked, I muttered, "Why did you do that?" I asked. She shrugged her shoulders and said nonchalantly, "I don't know. Just felt like it." Over lunch, I told her about my lucid dream of meeting her and showing her the peace sign and how shocking it felt to see her mimic my lucid dream behavior in the waking world.
Moe's mirroring of my lucid dream action seems impossible to discount as mere coincidence. Not only had a "sign" been exchanged in the lucid dream, but my dream action appeared to influence Moe's waking action. Suddenly, the two worlds of dreaming and waking didn't seem so separate. For a moment on a sunny suburban street corner, lucid dreaming merged with lucid waking. (pg 182-3)
So does lucid dreaming allow us access to another person's mind, as Inception suggests? Or do we all connect subconsciously in a meta-web, mind-grid of a Collective Unconscious, which our ego blithely ignores as illusory dream fantasies? Could we use lucid dreaming to provide scientific evidence of a mental realm or shared inner dimension?
Lucid dreaming offers us a new and revolutionary psychological tool to investigate such questions. Using advanced and experienced lucid dreamers, scientists could develop experiments that consciously explore the mysteries of what psychological researchers are now calling a "hybrid state of consciousness" with features of both waking and dreaming awareness. The dream theories of Carl Jung, often criticized for lacking an experimental basis, could be re-examined through lucid dreaming. From my experience, lucid dreaming points convincingly to a kind of collective unconscious or inner communication system.
Christopher Nolan correctly realizes that "the only outlandish idea that the film presents, really, is the existence of a technology that allows you to enter and share the same dream as someone else." However, he need not worry about technology or lucid dream machines. Talented lucid dreamers have already provided anecdotal evidence of obtaining unknown information while lucidly aware in dreams. This fact alone should wake up science to the potential of lucid dreaming to explore deeper aspects of consciousness - an Inception that many physicists, lucid dreamers and others have long imagined.
Robert Waggoner ©2010Image by mark sebastian, courtesy of Creative Commons license.