Hollywood, Inception, and the Cinematic Dream State
Interview with Jason Silva by Frank Rose
One afternoon recently I spent a couple of hours with Jason Silva, the longtime Current TV host who’s been making much-talked-about micro-videos about the co-evolution of humans and technology—the latest of which will be featured at TEDGlobal later this month. We were sitting in a window table at The Smile, a subterranean hangout in a once-grand row house on Bond Street in lower Manhattan. Behind us was a brick wall that seemed to grow out of the schist the house was built on. In the glinting sunlight it looked more real than real. Maybe that was what got us talking about Inception, Christopher Nolan’s metaphysical action flick, which came out two years ago and won’t let go. From there it was inevitable that we’d slide intoThe Matrix, eXistenZ, and other movies that seek to limn the parameters of reality. Eventually we had to go, but we ended up continuing the conversation online. What follows is an edited transcript in which we question everything, including those bricks on the wall.
Jason Silva: These are films that immerse us while also unsettling us. They are multi-layered experiences that suck us into their narrative on one level, while at the same time making unsettling suggestions about our own perception of reality.
The Matrix says that reality is just patterns of information interpreted by your brain, electrical signals that can be emulated by a sufficiently advanced computer system. In other words, reality could be an immersive virtual simulation. In Vanilla Sky, we can achieve immortality by getting cryogenically frozen and signing up for a virtual lucid dream that is sculpted moment-to-moment out of the iconography of our lives. In David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, we plug into a synthetic life form that rewires our nervous system, providing a game-like universe where we are fully immersed in an adventure.
Movies like this offer an uneasy takeaway. We love movies because they provide dream worlds we can lose ourselves in—and yet these movies suggest that their waking dream worlds are no less real than "reality," because reality is also a story we tell ourselves.
Frank Rose: Don't forget The Truman Show. Jim Carrey as a guy whose entire life has been televised from birth—unbeknownst to him.
Jason: My biggest takeaway from The Truman Show is the scene when Christof (Ed Harris) is pressed as to why Truman Burbank accepted his reality for so many years before questioning it—and Christof utters, "We accept the reality with which we're presented."
This speaks to all of us. We reside in reality tunnels. We live inside conceptual and symbolic constructs. We accept what we receive through our senses, making no effort to examine just how much of what we take in is interpreted. And if our "reality" is just a composite, the sum of our creative and linguistic choices, then the most difficult realization is that, yes, we live in a prison, an illusory reality, but the gate to the prison is wide open. We can change our reality, co-author it, edit it, upgrade it.
Frank: William Gibson defined cyberspace as "a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions.” Could you say the same thing about reality? Is that what Christopher Nolan is saying inInception?
Jason: I think Nolan is saying that dreams do not lack reality, that they are real patterns of information. As Jonah Lehrer has pointed out, watching a movie is the closest thing to REM sleep you can have with your eyes open: "From the perspective of your brain, dreaming and movie-watching are strangely parallel experiences." When you experience the kind of sensorimotor overload that comes with watching a film, the prefrontal cortex is inhibited so you can lose yourself in it. But this film was profoundly unsettling in its brilliance. I mean, how can you ever really know if you're dreaming or awake?
Frank: Maybe you can’t. That's why everybody loves the spinning top conceit. The first time I saw the movie I thought the spinning top only came up at the end—it was only on seeing it again that I realized it was planted in one of the very first scenes. Sort of like an idea being planted in your head during a dream, I suppose.
Jason: Devin Faraci says all films are inceptions—that Nolan’s Inception is so resonant because it’s about the thing that all great movies strive to do. “You walk out of a great film changed, with new ideas planted in your head, with your neural networks subtly rewired by what you’ve just seen,” he writes. “On a meta level, Inception itself does this, with audiences leaving the theater buzzing about the way it made them feel and perceive. New ideas, new thoughts, new points of view. . . .”
Frank: You know, they used to call Hollywood "the dream factory." In fact, there was a 1950 book called Hollywood, the Dream Factory by an anthropologist named Hortense Powdermaker. She had just come from studying headhunters in New Guinea and she decided to settle in Hollywood and study the natives there. But for all that, as Powdermaker wrote, "Hollywood is engaged in the mass production of prefabricated daydreams," the idea of fundamentally changing the way people perceive goes against every convention Hollywood can muster.
As Patrick Goldstein pointed out in his Los Angeles Times column, Hollywood's old guard really hatedInception. They were nonplussed by its game-influenced narrative style, confused by its puzzle-box structure, and utterly confounded by its dream-within-a-dream conception of reality. By this time it had been number-one at the box office for three weeks running—but they just didn't get it.
Hollywood had had this kind of problem before. The classic example was Bonnie & Clyde, which glorified criminality in a slapstick fashion that studio execs—and most film critics at the time—found utterly repugnant. But what Newsweek dismissed as "a squalid shoot-'em for the moron trade" was greeted on '60s college campuses as a pop take on counterculture rebellion.
Studio execs were equally aghast at Pulp Fiction. You could get away with nonlinear narrative if you were a senior renegade like Robert Altman, but who was this Tarantino guy to tell a story every which way? And yet within a few years, with films like Magnolia and Nolan's Memento, nonlinearity became so accepted it was almost commonplace.
Inception exposed the same sort of generational and cultural divide. I think it comes down to this: Hollywood movies aren't really supposed to have a meta level. And they certainly aren't supposed to change the way you feel and perceive.
Jason: But that's what movies do! Ido Hartogsohn wrote a great piece for Reality Sandwich aboutAvatar and the psychedelic undertones of cinema—how it aims to pull us out of context and reveal a hidden reality that underlies all things. I'll quote directly:
Hollywood cinema has been flirting with our culture's subconscious for some time now. Blockbuster fantasy and sci-fi films, ever-more popular in recent years, have acted as a Jungian shadow to our culture's proclaimed rational and materialist view of reality. Films such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Golden Compass have presented us with a re-enchanted world. These movies posit an unseen and outlandish reality existing alongside the "normal" world, and this serves to support a growing sense of paranoia about the deceptive qualities of consensus reality and the existence of hidden and enchanted dimensions to our world. Cinema has thus functioned as our culture's collective dream.
Cinema can be as cathartic as a great psychedelic experience. In fact, I think movies provide the best psychedelic trips because they are highly tuneable and controllable, no doubt assisted by an inhibited prefrontal cortex. Nolan can design a mind-blowing hero's journey in every movie without the existential risk you'd get taking DMT or LSD. The level of precision a filmmaker has in "sculpting" the details of the cinematic experience means he can carry our psyches along for the ride of a lifetime. He can guide us towards a place of ecstatic illumination.
Frank: Okay, maybe I've just watched too many Oscar ceremonies. I certainly agree that for a lot of directors, altering the audience's state of consciousness is very much the point. But I suspect that if a movie is going to be transcendent, one of the first things it has to transcend is Hollywood convention. Which of course both Christopher Nolan and James Cameron have done.
Jason: Hartogsohn is particularly jazzed about the mind-altering potential of 3-D. From the same piece:
3D is the new and the most immersive media drug to have emerged out of our high-tech media complex, the most successful attempt to emulate the effects of the psychedelic state. . . . Psychedelics invoke a kind of dream experience. They are about traveling between dimensions, leaving the commonplace dimension of reality for an enchanted world. . . .
As Terrence McKenna never grew tired of reminding us, the psychedelic experience dissolves boundaries. It dissolves the boundaries between "reality" and "hallucination," between "madness" and "saneness." . . . While under the influence of psychedelics, and to a significant extent also during periods of psychedelic use, one experiences the world as magical. The everyday world of yesterday suddenly seems to be the bleak, colorless one, the deadly illusion of an unaware mind. Two opposites, hallucination and reality, dream and waking life, suddenly exchange places. Could the dream life be the true life?
Frank: I interviewed James Cameron for my piece on Avatar. We didn't talk about psychedelics, but he was certainly clear about wanting to dissolve the boundary between fiction and reality. His goal in shooting in 3-D was to eliminate the "screen plane"—the surface the movie is projected onto. In 2-D the screen plane is the screen, but in 3-D it's just an imaginary surface that other directors went to great lengths to try to preserve. Cameron wanted to get rid of it because he saw it as a subconscious barrier between the audience and the movie. He wanted you to be able to totally immerse yourself in his movie.
Dissolving boundaries is what all digital media is about. Several years ago, when the producers of the pioneering Web video Prom Queen set up MySpace profiles for their characters, fans started friending the characters and sending them messages. At first the producers didn't know what to think: Didn't these people realize it was all a fiction? It took them awhile to realize that if the audience was this engaged, those characters had better write back.
In fact, we've always wanted to blur the boundary between fiction and reality. The whole point of fiction—movies, books, whatever—is to lose yourself in another world. It's just a question of whether the technology allows it. But as much as we've always wanted this, we've feared it as well. Don Quixote went tilting at windmills because he read so many books about the bygone age of chivalry he thought he was a knight-errant. He lost his mind from reading too much. Movies simply made the unreality of fiction seem that much more real.
Jason: It seems that what we need is to be immersed into a world where the stakes are raised. A reality more real than real. David Fincher's The Game offers a meta-example of this, as the Web site metaphilm explains:
Nicholas Van Orton is the man who has everything, and thus values nothing. As an insanely successful control-freak investment banker who disdains all those who should be closest to him, Van Orton is at once, as Percy puts it, "both the hero and asshole of the cosmos." His wealth and power have sated him to the point of extreme boredom. . . . . What are the conditions under which such a man could actually see the Parthenon and not be bored?
The answer, of course, is a "game" known as CRS that, like cinema or marijuana, heightens the intensity of reality, lending it an enchantment that proves irresistible to the child in all of us:
Initially, Van Orton is intrigued by the attention; he smiles as he walks into the airport and realizes, with the shock of discovery, that every exchange, glance and action is imbued with tremendous potential significance. He is returned to that state of innocent childhood belief that around each corner the scene has been constructed just prior to his arrival and will collapse just after his departure. But he doesn’t know how far it goes, where it starts and ends, and why. Like life, he is only armed with the one clue that the purpose of the game is to discover the purpose of the game.
In 1970, Gene Youngblood wrote a book called Expanded Cinema in which he calls for a cinema that will satisfy the new and restless consciousness of modern man. Our existential malaise, having only been exacerbated by material wealth in the Western world, requires a new form of media to shake us into a state of wonderment and awe. "When we say expanded cinema we actually mean expanded consciousness," he writes. "Expanded cinema isn't a movie at all: like life itself, it is a process of becoming, a part of man's ongoing historical drive to manifest his consciousness outside of his mind, in front of his eyes." This is the ultimate inception: an epic quest for self-awareness.
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It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?
- Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
- Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
- Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.
The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.
- Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
- Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
- Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.
Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.
Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.
"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."
Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.
Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.
The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.
That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.
Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.
Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.
First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.
Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.
More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."
This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.
"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."
The Oedipal complex
The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.
That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.
Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.
But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.
Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.
An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.
The Freudian slip
Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."
"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."
In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.
According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.
"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.
Freud's case studies
Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."
It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.
For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.
Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.
Sigmund Freud and his legacy
Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)
Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.
If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.
When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).
Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.
But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.
With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.
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