The psychology of Christopher Nolan films

July 20, 2023 | By More

By Brendan Clarke

Senior Cognitive Behavioural Therapist

I love Christopher Nolan films, partly because I’m a 30 something year-old man who spends a lot of time on IMDB and it’s the law. But also because I am a Cognitive Behavioural (CBT) Therapist. Briefly, the central idea in this mode of psychotherapy is that the way that we feel and how we act are shaped by the way that we think, by our ideas. Nolan’s films explore a lot of things that come up often in therapy, like the nature of memory and identity, acting in spite of uncertainty but most of all, the power of our ideas.

This is most obvious in the film Inception, the plot of which is essentially “How do you change someone’s mind?”. The methods are quite different, but that is often the central question in CBT. Why change someone’s mind? Because ideas can be dangerous. As a therapist, you often see ideas turning people’s life upside-down, for example the idea that they will never be loveable, the idea that only a certain body shape is acceptable, or in the cases of OCD or Generalised Anxiety, it could be a whole swarm of corrosive ideas that a person has to deal with daily. In Nolan’s film Inception, Mal, played by Marion Cotillard has the idea that our world is not real and that in order to return to reality, she must die, alongside her husband, Cobb (played be Leonardo Di Caprio). Lots of different ideas get explored in therapy, like “I’m worthless”, “I’ll fail”, “I’ll be rejected” but also, in cases such as depersonalization disorder, the question “How do I know what’s real?”. When you spend a long time thinking about this question, you’ll know what Cobb means by saying ideas are “the most resilient parasites in the world”.

But as well as being resilient parasites, ideas can be symbols of hope. They are the one thing that can live on past our deaths. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne says “as a man I am flesh and blood, but as a symbol…I can be everlasting”. This gets to the essence of the philosophy of American anthropologist Ernest Becker, who won a Pulitzer prize in 1974 for his book “The Denial of Death”. Becker proposed that a lot of man’s psychological strife could be explained by his awareness of his own mortality. None of our animal cousins have to think about this, but we can do it all day long if we like, and it causes us a lot of problems. Becker suggested that we try to transcend our frightening mortality by attaching ourselves to something that will outlast our deaths. This could be a group of people like a nation or a football club, but it could also be a set of ideas like Christianity or Stalinism. When our connection to these sources of transcendence is threatened, we firstly tend to get very anxious, and then go to great lengths to preserve it. This is one of the themes of Nolan’s film “The Prestige”.

This film is set during the Victorian era, when the theory of evolution (or “Darwin’s dangerous idea” in the words of philosopher Daniel Dennett) had eroded many people’s ideas about the transcendent, allowing Nietzsche to famously declare “God is dead. How shall we, console ourselves, the murderers of murderers?”. The answer to his question came in part through reconnecting with the transcendent in novel ways – interest boomed in phenomena like fairies and in occult magical practices. Stage magicians also played a part in this, and magic experienced a huge surge in popularity during this period. In The Prestige, two rival magicians, Borden and Angier, go to great lengths to try to return the mystery to life by performing feats that seem to contradict the laws of material reality. Their trick involves disappearing from one spot and, in apparent defiance of physical laws, reappearing somewhere else. In order to achieve this possibly magical feat, both commit themselves wholeheartedly, sacrificing their lives, to maintain an illusion. In the final scene, Angier speaks about why: “The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It’s miserable…solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder…”. Ernest Becker probably would have approved. He felt that our connection with a world beyond facts and beyond what we can grasp was essential to us, and would always play a part in human life. Or in the words of the Robert Browning poem quoted throughout the film: “but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

This division, between what we can grasp, and what we can only reach is explored in depth in the wonderful book “The Master and his Emissary” by the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist. The book describes the different worlds created by the two hemispheres of our brain. In short, the left hemisphere (which controls our right, ‘grasping’ hands) gives us a world of ‘things’, ie small, discrete units. It is the materialistic hemisphere. The right hemisphere gives us processes and phenomena that are very real, but which are more vague. They are less easily described in black and white terms, for example our emotions, or our sense of what’s valuable in life. It gives us a world that we can sense intuitively, but not necessarily describe logically or grasp definitively. The left hemisphere domain is that of mathematical proofs, engineering design and the scientific method. The right hemisphere’s is that of the intuition that the universe has a purpose, of the beauty of a sunset, or the connection between two people in love. You could think of the left as the rational hemisphere, and the right as the romantic. Both have their extremes, like the person who invests heavily in a company because it has the same name as their daughter, or the hyper-rational person who lacks intuition and has to go through an exhaustive list of pros and cons before deciding  what to have for breakfast. But, McGilchrist’s feeling is that we currently live in a time that is too left-brained, or too rational, the impact of which is a disconnection from our emotions, and ultimately, serious mental health issues. From this point of view it is not coincidental that during the hyper-rational Victorian era the number of insane asylums in Britain tripled, and we were given the most iconic example of a person disconnected from the irrational, emotional side of himself – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. One way of responding to this disconnection, and to the fact of evolution is presented in what is possibly Nolan’s best film – Interstellar.

In this film, Matthew McConnaughey plays an ex-pilot, now farmer. He gets reprimanded by his son’s schoolteacher for promoting the “conspiracy theory” that man flew to the moon. This is now understood to have been a lie fabricated to bankrupt the Soviet Union and school textbooks have been rewritten to bury this particular dangerous idea. The idea of thinking about the stars is now so forbidden, that NASA has had to become an underground organisation. McConnaughey’s character Cooper, summarises where we have gotten to: “we used to look up and wonder at our place in the stars…now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt”. Like the facts of evolution, the dirt is very real, but it is not enough to sustain us. We need something that contains those facts, but goes beyond them. This duality between graspable facts and ungraspable ideas plays out between Cooper and his daughter Murphy. She notices some strange phenomena taking place in her bedroom, like books flying off shelves of their own accord, and concludes that there must be “a ghost”, an intuitive, romantic idea. Her Dad is not so sure and instructs her to measure it, a rational perspective. As it turns out, it is not that one perspective is right and the other is wrong, but that the conflict between them is productive, and this is the beginning of the adventure. It is guided by faith in an idea that calls to Cooper, but can’t be reduced to a logical description. Like in therapy, change begins as just an idea, a fantasy even. It becomes real, when, after some rational calculation, we are ready to take a leap off into space.

This blogpost first appeared on The Psychologist on 19/7/23.

Brendan Clarke is a Senior Cognitive Behavioural Therapist at Evidence-Based Therapy Centre. You can read more about him here.


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