Dreaming and the Creative Process – The Movie Inception


“It is never JUST a dream.” – Dom Cobb

Recently I saw the new film Inception by Christopher Nolan. It was an absolute delight. As someone who has devoted the bulk of my life to celebrating and exploring the mysterious connection between dreams, the creative process and healing, I was especially thrilled to see a mainstream film inspired by dreaming.

In this film, Nolan builds a highly engaging story around the unlikely premise of an international team of dream thieves who are able to plant an idea into the mind of another person while he sleeps using a special dream machine. While such devices do not actually exist in waking life, it is indeed possible to seed one’s own dream with the intention to dream on a particular topic. This is known as dream incubation.  Many creative people in fields as diverse as medicine, athletics and the arts have learned how to use dreams as a source of inspiration and problem solving.

Dream incubation is a fairly simple, yet powerful process, in which one sets an intention and then sleeps on it, knowing that the dreams will respond. It comes as no surprise that incubated dreams, just like other dreams, are often filled with puzzling images that may at first seem to be unrelated to the issue at hand. However, upon closer inspection such dreams can actually offer truly innovative ways of dealing with challenges that would not be possible to conceive of in waking life.

Creative people also draw upon dreams for their own work in other ways as well. In Christopher Nolan’s case, he has spoken at length about his own experiences as a lucid dreamer and expressed a clear interest in mutual dreaming, which he refers to as ‘shared dreaming’ in the film. In conversations between the main character Dom Cobb and his assistant Ariadne in Inception, it is clear that Nolan’s own dream experiences have shaped his understanding of the creative process.

For example, in one scene, while teaching Ariadne about the dream world, Dom says, “Imagine you’re designing a building. You consciously create each aspect. But sometimes it feels like it’s almost creating itself, if you know what I mean. Genuine inspiration, right? Now, in a dream, our mind continuously does this. We create and perceive our world simultaneously. Our mind does this so well that we don’t even know it’s happening. That allows us to get right in the middle of that process.”

In dreaming we are able to witness the creative spirit in action. When we draw upon the living images of dreams to inform our creative work, there is a tremendous power and intensity that comes into the work. As Ariadne and Dom both note, it is as if the work happens by itself. That is the nature of pure creativity, as expressed in the dream.

One of the things I loved about this film was watching Nolan push the physical limits of his medium while invoking the unlimited possibilities of the dream. For example, there is a scene in which the character Ariadne is learning to how to create architecture in the dream world, where none of the limitations of physical reality apply. She says, “I thought it would be more about the visual…but the dream space is more about the feel of it.” In other words, she is beginning to understand what artists have long known, that form without feeling is simply not believable.

While I am thrilled to see a film that brings attention to dreaming, I disagree with Nolan’s assumption that the dreamer creates everything within a dream and that a dream occurs only within a particular dreamer’s mind. I personally find that dreams are not that simple. Through dreams I encounter something far greater and more mysterious than just my own projections.  There is an intelligence present that cannot be named. While projections are certainly present in the dream state, it is clear that is not all there is to the dream.

Although neither dreams nor movies are real in the sense that they are not physical experiences, they are utterly real in terms of the imagination. In spite of the fact that there are many things about this film that are not completely accurate as far as dreams go, Inception is a fine example of creative work inspired by dreams. It is an excellent film that it fun to watch while making us question the nature of reality itself and our place in it. I highly recommend it.

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Sheila McNellis Asato
Sheila McNellis Asato, M.A., E.I.C., is the director of Monkey Bridge Arts [www.monkeybridgearts.com] and a certified Embodied Imagination Coach. She presents her work on dreams, art and healing internationally and is a former board member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams [www.asdreams.org].


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