Two Schools of Thought
TWO SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT
Apart from the film’s ambiguous ending, which I will devote an entire section to (see Section 4), the concept of limbo is the other major talking point in Inception, causing a lot of confusion and debate as to what limbo really is.
Let’s get straight into it. What exactly is limbo?
A simple definition as explained in the film would be that limbo is a shared, infinite stream of consciousness that a person would go to if he or she dies in a dream while still sedated in reality.
However, it is not as simple as it is. The seemingly singular concept of limbo has created two schools of thought, both very different from each other.
The first school of thought (1SOT) describes limbo as a state of mind when it loses sense of what is real. It is a psychological problem caused by being in a dream for too long, resulting in the loss of the ability to determine what is real and what is not.
The second school of thought (2SOT) describes limbo as a level of dream or construct in which a person becomes trapped in when he or she dies in a dream. While waiting for the sedative to wear off, the person may spend what would seem like an eternity in that level, resulting in the mind perceiving limbo as reality when it is not.
Both schools of thought share a similar effect – the fear of being stuck in limbo which would cause the mind to lose track of what is real. The consequence of being in limbo could have a far-reaching effect on the mind. The mind would perceive limbo as reality as it is trapped there for a very long time. When the mind eventually comes back to the actual reality, it may perceive that as only a dream. It could cause the person to kill himself in reality to return to limbo, which has become his “new reality”.
Which school of thought is correct? Or are they both plausible?
Through my analysis of the film, I have come to the conclusion that 2SOT is the more convincing school of thought and that it is the one in which the concept of limbo should be fundamentally based on. However, 1SOT is still valid because it is about the state of mind. When used together with 2SOT, 1SOT is able to describe the state of mind of a person as a result of being stuck in limbo.
Why is limbo a dream construct (2SOT) and not just a state of mind (1SOT)?
The answer lies in the degree of fear in both interpretations of limbo. As pointed out by Cobb, to be in limbo is a very scary prospect. Assuming that it is solely a state of mind, limbo would not be something fearful because it only deals with psychology. A totem would solve the problem, since it is explained in the film that it is a personal object with unique properties that could be used to tell the owner whether he is in a dream or reality.
Imagine you have a totem and you are in a dream, no matter how long you spend inside that dream, you would only need to use your totem to quash any fears that you may be in limbo. If that is the case, what is so frightening about limbo then?
Perhaps you might raise the issue that a totem may not convince a person in a dream that he is indeed in a dream because he could choose to believe otherwise (just like Mal). There is also that possibility that a person is so convinced that his dream is reality that his totem is imagined to perform unnaturally. This situation would only occur if a person stays in a dream for too long i.e. for years (which is only technically possible if it is a dream that is at least two or three levels deep).
The question now is would a sane person stay in a dream for that long when it could potentially be dangerous to the mind? No. So this issue is not relevant.
**Cobb and Mal were exceptions because they were intent on exploring the concept of dreams within dreams. They did not know the danger until Mal became convinced that their dream was reality, to such an extent that she kept her totem (Cobb’s spinning top) locked up in her safe, refusing to trust it anymore.
The point I am trying to make is that if limbo is only a state of mind, then it could be prevented by carrying a totem and/or spending as less time as possible in the dream state. If something could be prevented, the fear factor would be drastically reduced.
Moving on, I will build my case for limbo as a dream construct in My Theory of Limbo.