Inception and the Impact of Emotional Memory on Personal Identity

Whether or not you buy into the theory that the entirety of the movie Inception takes place as a dream, we can all agree on one thing: the importance of emotional memory in the story.

The first time I saw the film, I struggled simply to keep up with the plot twists—as any normal human probably would. But what I could follow quite lucidly was the development of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Dom Cobb, as the movie inevitably swerved deeper and deeper into the layers of his subconscious. The thing is, for all his cleverness in infiltrating the minds of other people, Cobb remains a fugitive from his own mind—or more specifically, what (appears to be) his memories.

Some critics view the film as a statement regarding cinema itself, while director Christopher Nolan emphasizes its commentary on the nature of reality.

In any case, one undeniable theme the movie tackles is the power of emotionally charged memories in a person’s present.

As the plot of Inception progresses, it becomes clear that Cobb is running from something in his past (or what he believes is the past) while simultaneously trying to carry out his mission of planting an idea in someone else’s mind. Eventually we learn that this dreaded memory is the death of his wife Mal, which he attributes to the “fact” that he suggested to her that the life they created together was in a world of sham. While we never really figure out (at least, I still haven’t) whether Mal actually committed suicide, the part that haunts Cobb throughout the entire movie is the simple idea that he is responsible.

There is a lot to dissect in this movie, what with all the layers of reality and unreality, which I obviously don’t have the space to do here—and also just don’t have the mental elasticity to do!

But what’s fascinating about Inception’s depiction of memories is that the factuality of the memories (i.e. whether they actually ever happened) takes a back to seat the emotional weight associated with them.

Basically, if we have strong enough feelings tied to our perception of an event, that event becomes real to us and we begin to treat its memory as such. And because we derive so much of our identity from our memories, these events (whether real or unreal) feed into our view of ourselves.

We see this fact illustrated all the time in movies and books. Think about it—how many flashback scenes or reflection scenes have you seen where the character’s memories are used to show you something important about who he is? And it’s really only the emotional memories that do this, isn’t it?

That’s part of what Inception is telling us.

The difference is that in most other movies, the memories are actual, and not imagined, whereas Inception blurs the line.

And while this blurring of lines could lead to all sorts of philosophical theories and discussions (postmodernism, subjectivism, and surrealism, to name a few), at the very least it encourages us to consider how much of our personal identity is based off of our emotional impressions of the past—or what our minds have construed as the past.

How has our acceptance or denial of responsibility for past events shaped our personal identity?

And what are the implications if our assessments are actually wrong? Does this mean our identity is built on a lie?

See, I thought that writing this might help make some sense of the movie—which to some degree it has—but now I’m realizing that I really ought to watch it again. Which, if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should. But you better strap yourself in, or you might get lost! Actually, just be prepared to get lost, because I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to. 🙂

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