The Inception Files

Did Daniel Dennett Predict Inception?

More than 30 years ago the philosopher Daniel Dennett predicted the invention of exactly the kind of dream-manipulating technology used in the new movie Inception.  In a 1977 paper titled “Are Dreams Experiences?” Dennett envisioned a future in which scientists develop the ability to insert false dreams into people’s minds:

“[W]e can imagine that the [future dream] researchers will acquire the technological virtuosity to be able to influence, direct, or alter the composition process, to stop, restart, or even transpose the presentation process as it occurs, to prevent or distort the recording process.  We can even imagine that they will be able to obliterate the ‘veridical dream’ memory and substitute for it an undreamed narrative.” (134)

For Dennett this ability is a plausible, indeed logical extension of present-day research on correlations between the mental and physical aspects of dreaming.  Eventually the increased precision of mind-altering technologies will allow for the total exernal control of people’s dreaming, to the point where they can be fooled into believing they experienced dreams they didn’t, and didn’t experience dreams they did.

The movie Inception is based on the same idea, but with a dark Hollywood twist: What would happen if such dream-altering tools “fell into the wrong hands” and were used for malevolent purposes?

Ironically, Dennett did not think much of the narrative potential of his theory:

“As a premise for a science-fiction novel it would be almost pedestrian in its lack of conceptual horizon-bending.” (135)

Dennett’s main philosophical goal in this paper was to undermine the “received” view of dreaming, i.e. the traditional theory in which dreams are regarded as experiences during sleep that we later remember in waking.  As part of his larger project of constructing “a physicalist theory of consciousness” (129), Dennett argued that we may not actually experience dreams, but only assume that what we remember after awakening must have been experienced during sleep.  Perhaps “there are no dreams after all, only dream ‘recollections.’” (136)

This claim was important to him because it was part of his overarching argument that all aspects of mental life, even in sleep and dreams, can be explained in purely physical terms, without any reference to subjective experience.

Dennett has gone on to become a highly influential writer on cognitive science, evolutionary theory, and religion (e.g., his 2007 book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon). All his works apply a vigorously physicalist mode of explanation, consistent with his approach in this 1997 paper.

It is strange to find, then, that at the end of this paper Dennett conceded that, despite his best critical attacks, the “received view” of dreaming was likely to be proven, not disproven, by scientific evidence:

“If it turns out that sleep, or at least that portion of sleep during which dreaming occurs, is a state of more or less peripheral paralysis or inactivity; if it turns out that most of the functional areas that are critical to the governance of our wide awake acitvity [sic] are in operation, then there will be good reason for drawing the lines around experience so that dreams are included.” (146)

Dennett must have known the first condition, i.e. atonia during REM sleep, was true.  He also clearly knew there was growing evidence suggesting that complex and sophisticated aspects of waking mental functioning could be identified in dreams.  He tried to diminish the significance of lucid dreaming, but still he had to acknowledge its reality and its problematic implications for his critique.

So in the end, does Dennett, a committed physicalist, accept the preponderance of empirical evidence in favor of the received view that dreams are experiences?

Not really.  In the final lines of the paper Dennett retreats to the idea that if he can simply redescribe the mind without reference to subjectivity, then it won’t matter any longer what people do or don’t say about experience.  If people followed his approach, “the received view of dreams, like the lay view of experience in general, would not be so much disproved as rendered obsolete.” (148).

That’s a remarkably weak conclusion to draw after such an elaborate effort to prove that dreams are not experiences.  Rather than grounding his ideas in empirical evidence, he ultimately claims to offer nothing more than better rhetoric.

Dennett’s analysis of dream research does not support his larger physicalist explanation of consciousness.  Rather, it suggests that dreaming as a form of conscious experience within sleep poses a serious challenge to his physicalist theory.



Daniel Dennett, “Are Dreams Experiences?”, in Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1978), 129-148.  The quotes above come from the third printing, 1986.

9 Replies to “The Inception Files”

  1. Leave it up to Hollywood to change something as wonderful as Lucid Dreaming into a nightmare!
    It’s hard to tell from the trailer if there are some good qualities about the movie. I’ll go see it just to know.

  2. There is no question that lucid dreaming happens.

    Laboratory studies show that during lucid dreams, parts of the brain that are normally unactive when people are asleep remain active.

  3. Inception was a complicated, mulit-layered movie worth seeing again. The fact that it has many stars and a fascinating topic will inspire audiences to view the movie. This alone is valuable … even if, perhaps, they skew the lucid dreaming and shared dreaming experiences, making them seem so much darker and drug-dependent. However, I believe anything that gets the general public to think more about their dreams and expanding their dream possibilities is great. Thank you IASD for putting out more sound information about lucid dreaming, and giving others the opportunity to share their experiences and ask questions.

    1. A big-budget movie like Inception can get lots of people thinking anew about dreaming and its possibilities. Good point about the emphasis on drugs as part of the dream-sharing process in Inception. In the 1985 movie Dreamscape, the trajectory of the main character (Dennis Quaid) was from using technology to using his own innate psychic powers to enter other people’s dreams.

  4. Inception was a futuristic movie that held true to real lucidity for the most part. The technology they used and extra logic they added made the movie really good and into a movie. Without the extra stuff they prolly couldn’t make a movie let alone a good one.

  5. I thought inception was mind blowing and incredible. It has definitely opened my mind to the lucid dream state and has made me explore the whole concept of astral projection. If we can astral project and others can as well why couldn’t we meet on the astral plane and therefore enter the world of dream sharing? I’ve watched inception a handful of times and i catch something new that i hadn’t seen the previous time watching. So for the people who said it was horrible didn’t take it for what it was. Breaking it down and criticizing every detail is not what the movie was originally made for. It was to open our minds to the dream state and opening our minds to wonder if extraction and inception are actually possible when are guards are lowered. The subconcous is a wonderful and powerful thing, and we must not underestimate the possiblities of our dreams!

  6. Your first problem – if they were in a dream and Saito got shot, he could just say “there is no bullet in my chest and I wont be bleeding anymore” and there wouldn’t have been, because they are in a dream. And the place where Saito first understands they are in a dream because Mal told him and they are threatening Arthur, Cobb could just have used “telekynesis” (which i always do when i understand when i am in a dream) with his mind to take away their gun… BUT if they would have done these things, people would have expected to do these kind of obvious things in every situation and that would have made the movie too… too easy? wouldn’t it?

    Second – they were in a dream within a dream within a dream, and in dreams the law of physics don’t aplly and this really can happen, when you are sleeping in car and the car is falling off of a cliff…

    Third – to me it didn’t seem too much action, I know when it is too much action and I don’t like action… but yeah, the film could have been more deep into the mysterious world of dreaming

    Four – motivation wasn’t lame. As Saito said: When Cobol Energy gets him out of the way, the will become a new superpower. And they could like rule the world or smth. Lame? No. One man couldn’t have so much power ower the world, right? Still lame? And to Cobb yes, it was just a last job and to see his children, very intrigueing.

    Five – I have watched Inception four times. People are different, so, this is YOUR problem, so sorry.

  7. I honestly havenever watched the film, but always heard that its about lucid dreaming. I always was scared to lucid dream after i watched that movie but i want to face my fears and actually do it. Could someone tell me how i reach that state?.

    1. I’d recommend you go to Ryan Hurd’s website,, where he has a lot of good resources about lucid dreaming.

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