The Psychological Science of Inception

For three weeks in a row, Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie Inception reigned at the top of the Box Office hit list. Sure, the special effects and imaginative landscapes are exciting, but did you know that the seemingly outlandish concept behind the storyline of Inception is really related to ideas that psychological scientists have been studying for years? Empirical research has shown that ideas can, in fact, be implanted into people’s minds and integrated into a person’s memory.

Daniel Wegner, a psychological scientist at Harvard University, has successfully made people think particular thoughts by suggesting just the opposite — to NOT think about them. In his classic studies of the “white bear effect,” Wegner has shown that when people try to consciously suppress the thought of a white bear, they cannot remove the mental image from the front of their minds. In a thinly veiled scene in Inception, one of the characters experiences this same phenomenon — only in his case he cannot escape thoughts of elephants. Of course, the professional mind explorers in Inception go far beyond bears and elephants: They’re in the business of implanting autobiographical memories.

Is it possible for a counterfeit thought to be implanted so firmly into a person’s memory that he honestly believes it is real? Elizabeth Loftus, from the University of California, Irvine, has shown that these types of “false memories” fool people on a regular basis. In her laboratory, Loftus began studying false memories by planting a specific traumatic memory — being lost in a shopping mall during childhood — into the minds of research participants of all ages. Since then, Loftus has applied her research to more serious matters: false memories of childhood abuse embedded by therapists using questionable practices.

The caper in Inception is convincing the heir to an international conglomerate that he has had a brilliant inspiration — to dismantle his father’s business. To do this, the mind explorers must infiltrate his dreams and hopes and fears. That feat, at least for now, lies beyond the capabilities of science. But we can dream, can’t we?

For more information, please visit the websites of Daniel Wegner and Elizabeth Loftus.

Observer Vol.23, No.7 September, 2010

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