In reality, things exist whether you like them to or not; and they behave only as they want to behave. In dreams, the lack of underlying reality will eventually find a way to manifest itself and show through. This could be anything from a top spinning endlessly, to getting pinched and not feeling any pain. Both the former and the latter are known as “reality checks;” a way to differentiate between dreams and reality. In the movie Inception, we are given several various reality checks used by the main characters: Cobb had a spinning top, Arthur had a die, and Ariadne created a pawn. We see this best demonstrated by Cobb— when he spins it in a dream, it never ceases to spin, whereas in the real world it will begin to wobble and topple. Effectively, in the real world, the top behaves exactly how we would expect it to: it would lose momentum due to the fact that eventually, the force of air friction and gravity slowing and pulling the top down will overcome the centripetal force keeping the top in motion. However, in dreams, the scientific foundations of our world such as time and gravity don’t carry over in a one-to-one ratio. The human brain does not have the computing power to factor in gravitational constants, molar masses, and all the little foundational building blocks that give our world such a rigid and predictable behavior.
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The issue is, in order to initiate a reality check, you must already be at a level of self-awareness that is beyond any “normal” state of consciousness inside a dream. You must already suspect that your reality is false. This is demonstrated well when Cobb asks Ariadne, “Think about it, Ariadne, how did you get here? Where are you right now?” (Nolan et al., 2010). Ariadne was completely unable to tell that she was in a dream until Cobb broke the fourth wall and aroused her suspicions. Without the intervention of a third party, Ariadne could have went on living her life in her dream indefinitely, much like we see happen to Saito near the end of the movie. As humans, we are so caught up in the artificial reality of our own dreams that there is no justifiable reason to question their gravity. We lack both the computational capability to create perfect dreams and the situational awareness to sense imperfect ones.
Which brings us to somewhat of an impasse. Theoretically, it should be possible to determine if one is a dream or not off of logical deductions, however in actuality, those deductions and inferences can never be made in the first place. While awake, we can perform any sort of reality check at any time, because our consciousness is at full mental capacity; all of our brain’s cognitive functions are running at full speed, analyzing everything that our senses input. However, in dreams, there are no sensical inputs; only our brain replicating the stimuli of these inputs. We may be convinced we smell homemade cookies, but this is merely our brain stimulating the synapses that fire whenever we smell homemade cookies. Our brain has so much control over itself that it’s able to manipulate memories and feelings into its own reality and immerse ourselves inside of it. But even though our brain may be good at what it does, it isn’t perfect. There may be little bread-crumbs left here and there in the margins, our minds are simply so focused on the bigger pictures to be able to pick up on those.
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