Science of Inception – sedatives, dissociatives and dreaming

Written by: Captain Skellett // August 1st, 2010 // Drugs, Science in the Movies

inception movieInception is a movie which grabs you by the throat and won’t let you go. Having seen it, I can’t stop thinking about it and I just have to write something down. For those who haven’t seen it, I will keep this vague enough to avoid spoilers.

Dreaming is, well, weird. We don’t really know why or how it happens, though we have plenty of theories. I’ve had dreams so real that afterward I think they happened in life. It makes you think, if we can dream or imagine something that looks real, how real is reality? Could it all be a chemical hallucination, reality merely a response to stimuli that triggers a release of endogenous drugs? What makes reality more real than a dream?

If you really start thinking about it, nothing seems real. So let’s not think about it right now.

Instead let’s talk about sedatives – drugs which relax the body and the mind. Examples include alcohol, kava, valium, and barbiturates which are sometimes used as general anaesthetic (we made one at Uni once – sleepiest class ever!) Sedatives can be used to treat insomnia, and come with the danger of addiction.

So sedatives can put you to sleep, but what about dreams? The few times I’ve had general anaesthetic I haven’t had any dreams at all, and I’ve never noticed different dreams after a big night of drinking rum or sharing kava on the islands.

houseI’ve been racking my brains trying to think of a drug that enhances dreams, and I think I’ve found one. Ketamine, the horse tranquiliser known on the streets as Special K. They had it once in House – the episode “No Reason” starts with House getting shot and given ketamine as anaesthetic. The rest of the episode he hallucinates wildly and finally decides everything is a dream and kills a patient to prove it – then it flashes back to the start as House is rushed to the emergency room and says “Tell Cuddy I want ketamine.” And the whole thing was a dream. Best episode EVER.

Based on that and descriptions on Erowid I think ketamine is a good contender for inducing dreams.

It can act like a sedative (you know, seeing as it’s a tranquiliser and all) but it’s actually classed as a dissociative. Being awake under a sedative means being able to react to stimulus, but with ketamine someone is in a trancelike state with analgesic (not anal gesic, sir, the pills go in your mouth) and amnesic properties.

If I know a dream is about to become a nightmare, I can usually just wake up out of it. Sweet, right? Yes, except sometimes when I wake up I try to turn on the light and the power is out. Then I know I’m still dreaming, and the nightmare starts again. I’ve woken up into other dreams ten times in a row before actually waking up. Does that happen to anyone else, or am I as mad as Ahab?

So, even after all that research and writing, I still can’t get Inception out of my head. I think I’ll have to see it again next time I’m on shore. Come with me?

Captain Skellett

I be Captain Skellett. Me blog started in April 2009 when I was working full time and didn’t get a chance to talk science. Now I have changed jobs and talk science all the time, but that doesn’t stop me blogging. More About Captain Skellett   Google


11 Responses to “Science of Inception – sedatives, dissociatives and dreaming”

  1. gemgem says:

    omg – i loved inception so much. i notice differences in my dreams after consuming particular substances or what have you. for example, if i drink too much alcohol, i dream about huge towering glasses of water. if i take sleeping pills, i dream that i’m falling into a huge black hole made of pillows. if it’s too hot, i have horrible nightmares where i am being chased or can’t solve any problems or whatever. and i have those terrible wake up into another dream, into another dream, into another dream if i’m really really overtired. and it usually only happens if i am asleep during the day. also, not to be gross, but if i get my period while i’m asleep, i dream about blood. buckets and buckets of it, its gross. i once read somewhere that dairy, and cheese in particular can get you into a deeper sleep faster, any truth to that?
    xx 🙂

    Well I have really weird vivid nightmares if I have cheese before going to sleep. I have heard that a cup of warm milk helps people get to sleep, but I’ve never noticed it myself (anyone else?) I also notice really strange dreams if I’m too hot or have a fever, maybe because I’m uncomfortable and in a light sleep so more likely to have / remember dreams.

  2. tim says:

    From what I’ve heard 😉 , Special K does induce controllable dreams. I’ve even “heard” of group dreams with others and feeling like you are a puppet on a string just acting out a scene which you have no control over. The weirdest part is that you do feel like you know about this alternate reality, but you don’t realize that you’ve been there before until you get there. IMHO someone involved in the creation of the story has definitely done K before, same with The Matrix

    claire Reply:


    definately agree that the director of inception must’ve been a massive ket head!!

  3. Matt says:

    I’m able to wake myself from a nightmare also, but I have to jerk my body to wake myself up. The dilemma is that I have sleep paralysis when I have a nightmare, so trying to jerk my body is like trying to push a truck up a hill. The feeling of dread gets so intense though that I’m usually finally able to do it.

    Inception is the best movie I’ve seen in a very longtime. And yes, it is very K-ish, take my word for it. Anyone who has done K before will find this movie to be a total mindblower. I found this site after searching for Ketamine and Inception because I knew there would be a discussion about it 🙂

    I keep running into the number 528 since I saw the movie, what’s up with that? Pretty freaky.

  4. […] graduate, and, as you no doubt guessed, they’re about science. I found this article about Inception interesting. A Schooner of Science is updated with a new post about every five days, making it a […]

  5. janee says:

    oh my gosh. i know exactly what you go through. everytime i have a nightmare i know it’s a dream. so i somehow tell myself to shake my head and my leg and i can feel myself do it and i wake up. and about the light switch thing that happens to me too i always end up in a bathroom flipping the switch and the power doesnt work and i realize i’m dreaming once again. i thought i was weird because of that.


  6. brando says:

    I found this article today –

    I’ve been basically obsessed with the link between Inception and ketamine ever since seeing Inception on ketamine (by accident – didn`t realize they were perfectly synergistic).

    Whoever wrote Inception has experience with K. It`s even hinted at when they have the Indian chemist make them a potion – much of the ketamine in North America comes from Indian chemists and sellers.

    Anyway, Inception + ketamine blew a hole in my ideas about reality so big that all these months later, I`m still musing about it

    I went to see it a second time on ketamine, and it seemed like a completely different film. I mean completely different. I wondered whether or not I went through the correct door or not.

    Ketamine’s about time and how time governs thought. Though it is technically classified a dissociative, I’d probably call it a free-associative. The K experience and the internet experience are closely linked: all information checked for relevance, similarity and dissimiliarity against all other information.

    A word of caution to K explorers: Reality through K is so totally different that it may seem irreconcilable with your normal reality. It’s a drug totally unlike any other, and it comes with its own basket of potential problems.

    Be safe

  7. justin says:

    i have had the waking up ten times to the same dream or similar thinking i am awake each time untill i finally do wake up and i find i am creeped out when i finally wake up. this usually happens when i have drank alcohal under alot of stress. some of the worst was when coming of of methamphetamine when i was an addict in which i experienced this and sleep paralysis in which i woke up and thought there was people in my room but i couldnt move and after two nights of this i was convinced my house was haunted untill i read of sleep paralysis.

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