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Hacking Dreams: Let's talk about Inception and Paprika

Dreaming is the closest a healthy person can get to a fantastical world. These sleep-induced hallucinations come in many forms, shapes, vividness, and meanings. During our sleep, our brains can create amazing stories about pretty much anything. From rabbits drinking tea to queens chopping heads off, our mind keeps busy when it’s time for our bodies to rest.

It is estimated that we might dream three to six times per night, even if we cannot remember them when we wake up. However, we have yet to learn why we do it. Best guesses are mere hypotheses. Maybe it’s a way to consolidate memories or the brain trying to make sense of random events and feelings we gathered throughout the day.

Dreams are enigmas. Which makes them a perfect plot device to build a story upon.

Yes, the “it was a dream all along” trick is a bit clichéd, and people tend to get underwhelmed by it. But we can get creative without resorting to it. What would happen if we could infiltrate another person’s dreams? Could we take advantage of it somehow?

I’m going to analyze the answer from two different perspectives. Let’s talk about Inception and Paprika.

As I cannot discuss this topic without sharing some details about these movies’ plots, a SPOILER ALERT is now in effect.

This is the Science of Fiction.


If someone told you that you talk in your sleep, would you be concerned about sharing something sensitive or embarrassing? Or curious to know if it was something amusing or non-sensical?

Some believe dreams are manifestations of our subconscious minds. And, if that’s the case, dreams could reveal relevant information about ourselves or our daily lives.

Christopher Nolan explored this idea in his 2010 movie Inception. Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo Di Caprio, is the leader of a team of thieves specialized in infiltrating other’s dreams to retrieve information that could later be used to con the victim. It’s a heck of a story! We get to explore not only this fantastic premise but also dream worldbuilding.

In Nolan’s story, it is possible to get lost in dreams, the so-called Limbo, so the characters use tricks to avoid staying permanently in Dreamland.

Dreams feel real while we're in them. It's only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange. (Dom Cobb - Inception)

The idea that one can lose their grasp of reality and stay in a dream world increases the stakes for the characters. Suddenly, exploring another’s dream becomes a risky business that requires expertise and care.

This pitfall is explored in the character of Mal, Cobb’s late wife, played by Marion Cotillard. Once, the couple got stuck in Limbo, and when Cobb realized they were in a dream together, he tried to persuade his wife to wake up. However, she could not believe she was dreaming. So Cobb used a dangerous trick to wake her up...

Stealing information from dreams is cool, but you know what’s cooler? Implanting ideas in dreams!

Of the wide variety of meanings people have tried to assign to dreams over the years, “an expression of our inner desires (or traumas)” is probably one of the most common. For example, we dream of eating a watermelon and wake up craving one. Or craving to have sex with one. I don’t know; Freud explains it better.

(Side note: The most dangerous example of this is to dream you’re peeing. The risk of it becoming a reality while in bed is a REAL nightmare.)

In Inception, to rescue Mal from Limbo, Cobb infiltrates a deeper layer of her dreams and implants an idea there: she is dreaming, and she needs to wake up. It works. Too well. She brings this idea to the real world and, believing she is still sleeping, she jumps from the balcony to wake up.

Dark, right?

Is this the scene I just described or are you dreaming?

Speaking of bringing dreams into reality….


The hacking in Paprika’s plot differs slightly from the extraction/inception of ideas in Nolan’s movie.

Satoshi Kon’s 2006 movie is more surreal. It equates the two meanings of the word dream: the hallucinations while sleeping and an ideal situation a person strives for. Dreamland is a world of possibilities where people are free to express themselves and get answers to real-life problems.

A new technology called DC Mini allows users to enter other people’s dreams. It is an experimental device that can only be used within the research facilities where it was created. Despite this, a mischievous employee uses it to help psychiatric patients unveil their traumas through their dreams. The employee’s dreamy alter-ego persona is the free-spirited Paprika.

However, one DC Mini device is stolen, and the culprit invades people’s minds, making them dream while awake. Not knowing if they are in a dream, they act recklessly, putting themselves in danger.

One scene has one of the characters, Dr. Chiba Atsuko, walking through an abandoned amusement park. At one point, she has to jump over a fence, and (surprise!) that’s when she wakes up. In reality, she had actually jumped from a high terrace. Believing she was awake, she jumped from a balcony. (Any similarity with Mal’s death scene in Inception is a coincidence. Or is it?)

Like in Inception, the idea of lucid dreams appears in Paprika. However, the whole story becomes surreal when the characters lose grasp of what’s real and accept the dream as their reality. Even we, the audience, cannot differentiate the two. Eventually, in the story, hallucinations and reality blend together in a collective dream.

This was the villain’s plan all along, to make his dream of omnipotence come true.

Everything is possible in our dreams.

Hacking dreams is not used to get an advantage in a real-world scenario but to enjoy the superpower of our subconscious imagination.

Which is better?

Nolan acknowledges Paprika’s influence on Inception in the several nods he gave to Satoshi Kon’s movie in mirror scenes. Both masterpieces deal with a common theme, although with different takes. Inception takes a more psychological approach. On the other hand, Paprika goes for the surreal, actually making the illusion into a reality.

Have you watched them both? Which do you prefer? I really enjoyed Paprika. The animation helped to make the surreal more real. However, Nolan’s practical effects on Inception were excellent as well. And the story is also unique. Well, I guess it’s a tie for me.

That’s it, folks!

Thank you for joining me on this surreal trip to Dreamland.

See you next post,



Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.

You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.

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Jerry Davis
Jerry Davis
Sep 02, 2023

I have never seen Paprika but now it’s on my list. I wonder if you’ve ever watched “Waking Life”?

Carla Ra
Carla Ra
Sep 02, 2023
Replying to

Never even heard of it before. It seems very interesting. Thank you for your recommendation!

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