In Christopher Nolan's Inception, characters can have "shared dreams" with a machine called PASIV (Nolan also published a manual about it as part of viral marketing campaign).

In each dream there are always a "Dreamer" (the one that creates the dream world, the world collapses if the Dreamer wakes up) and a "Subject" (his/her subconscious creates projections that attack intruders). The Subject is the typical victim of a con, but it's not always that way. In Ariadne's dream, Cobb is the Subject, but there is no con:

Ariadne: Who are the people?

Cobb: Projections of my subconscious.

Ariadne: Yours?

Cobb: Yes. Remember, you are the dreamer, you build this world. I am the subject, my mind populates it. You can literally talk to my subconscious. That's one of the ways we extract information from the subject.

The other participants (or sleepers) in a shared dream are neither Dreamers nor Subjects - although they can make minor changes to the dream, consciously (Eames transforming himself or conjuring a weapon) or unconsciously (Mal and the train, involuntarily summoned by Cobb), the dream does NOT end if they exit and they are never seen making major changes or conjuring more than one own projection. A participant can also become the Dreamer in another dream layer, in this case he/she has full Dreamer powers in that level. Instead, the Subject is always the same, even in Layer 2/3, or at least this is what is depicted in the movie (Saito at the beginning, Fischer in the main inception con).

The PASIV manual does not mention these roles. It says that all participants must connect their wrists to the machine, then you push the button and the dream begins.

So how do you tell the machine who is the Dreamer and who is the Subject?

(apart of the usual "very well thank you")

Possible theories, but probably incorrect:

  • the Subject may be the only one character who does not know he/she's dreaming. First counter-example: Fischer is still the Subject even after Cobb tells him he's dreaming (but they are in Level 2, while Fischer thinks he's in Level 1...). Second counter-example: see the quote above, in the Paris dream, Ariadne is the Dreamer (at the beginning she doesn't know she's dreaming - probably because she's not yet trained in shared dreaming - but when she knows, she defines the dream-Paris, bends streets, creates bridges, etc) and Cobb is the Subject (his projections attack Ariadne) even if Cobbs knows he's sleeping and is an expert in shared dreaming. If Cobb knows from the beginning that he's sleeping and that he's the Subject, this theory is false.
  • the Dreamer may be the first one who connects to the PASIV. Counter-example: often they seem to connect to the machine at the same time. For example, on the plane, the flight assistant pushes the button when everyone is already connected to the machine, so everyone receives the chemical at the same time. So this theory is also false.

Other possible theories:

  • switchs and controls of the PASIV which are not documented in the manual.
  • a mental thing. E.g. before falling asleep, the future Dreamer must concentrate on the "role", maybe repeating in his/her mind "I'm the dreamer, I create the world, I want to enter X's subconscious" (Maybe Ariadne is instructed to do this offscreen, but she's not well trained and/or she doesn't have a totem yet, so she forgets she's the Dreamer, and Cobb must tell her, so she regains her Dreamer powers); the other participants may think "I want to join Y's dream into X's subconscious"; the Subject is the one that does not "prepare" so his subconscious gets invaded (maybe Cobb "leaves his mind open" to let Ariadne do it in Paris). An interesting theory, but I can't find canon to support it.
  • This is Nolan, so, according to how you interpret the ending, of course

    there are no "roles" and no "cons", Cobb was dreaming all along, Cobb is the only character in the whole movie

Have the filmmakers explained the Dreamer/Subject selection?

Or are we supposed to just accept this as part of the sci-fi setting[*], relax (La-La-La) and follow the plot - a very hard task by itself?

(Edited for clarification: the possible distinction between Dreamer and Architect has nothing to do with my question. My question is only about the factual distinction between Dreamer and Subject - they have clearly different "powers" in the dream, but how do they "receive" these powers?)

[*]: together with the absurdity of a intravenous chemical "connecting" different dreams! a "magical" drug may explain the lucid dreaming, but "magical" wired headbands would have seemed more credible for the "sharing" thing

  • 2
    Ariadne enters Cobb's dream by simply connecting herself to the PASIV. I'd assume the dreamer is the first to connect.
    – Valorum
    Mar 25, 2017 at 20:41
  • 2
    Very well, th- oh never mind. Mar 26, 2017 at 13:06
  • The official PASIV promo web manual solely uses “participant” and does not distinguish between any such meaningless designations as “Dreamer” vs. “Subject.” Who’s the Dreamer(s) or Subject(s) is a philosophical issue which the Director has left to the viewer as part of the whole of viewing experience? Sep 30, 2021 at 16:53

2 Answers 2



  • All the roles are decided before either entering the dream world or going to a deeper level.
  • The Subject is always set. It is who you are trying to get information out of.
  • The Dreamer is the one that builds everything for the dream.
  • Check out this site... http://inception.wikia.com/wiki/Inception_Wiki

So I do not remember all the terminology, but I think you are making it more complicated than you need to.

So the Subject is always predetermined. They are the "target" that you are trying to get information from or whatever. I.E. that person is NOT part of your team. In the movie it was the Saito, then the Ariadne (just to show her how it all works), and then it was the rich guys son Robert.

The Dreamer (who might be the same thing as an Architect) is essentially the one trusted to create the dream world from memory. That is why they all got mad at Nash because he got the carpet wrong in the beginning of the movie while they had Saito under as the Subject. And after his disappearance Cobb found Ariadne to be his new Dreamer.

Towards the end of the movie with the whole inception thing it gets tricky, because there has to be a new architect in each level you go further down. If the architect of one level goes to another s/he is no longer there to maintain that level. Therefore the dreamer of the level was always left behind when the others went deeper.

This wiki I found to ensure I was on the right track with all the names and roles does not seem to be fully accurate, but it might be worth a peak if you are still curious. I am mostly curious as to if the Dreamer and Architect are the same thing. This wiki did not help me with that distinction...

Hopefully that clears that part up for you...

  • Thanks, but I already linked the wiki in OP (not as "source" - it can be edited by anyone - just to clarify terminology).But the wiki says only what we already know from the movie or has been published for marketing. Both script and wiki agree that, in the Paris dream, Ariadne is NOT the Subject, she is the Dreamer/Architect: COBB is the Subject, even if Ariadne does not want to "extract" info from him. And there is no "team" in the Paris dream, there are only Dreamer/Ariadne and Subject/Cobb. (The Dreamer vs Architect distinction is another story and has nothing to do with my question). Mar 26, 2017 at 7:07
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    After your comment I think I see your question through the fog. Is your question: How does the PASIV device determine who is the dreamer and who is the subject? The characters determine it based on my answer. The "abilities" the dreamer and subject receive based on the device's construct is a completely different question and not what you asked initially (or currently). I recommend changing the question in your title... I answered the question you asked...
    – Odin1806
    Mar 30, 2017 at 16:22
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    Sorry for the misunderstanding Mar 30, 2017 at 18:51

According to the instruction manual for the device (https://inception.fandom.com/wiki/Instruction_Manual_MV-235A), the sole purpose of the device is to distribute the drug. Therefore we must conclude the drug creates a psychic connection, as no physical or technological connection is involved.

Now, one possibility that we can discount is that the dreamer is the one who starts dreaming first. We see in the movie they all go to sleep at the same time about.

What this leaves is the remaining conclusion that the "dreamer" vs "subject" is decided by lucidity, training, talent, and will. Once a world is created by one dominant dreamer, lucidly or not, the others will naturally fall into it. Suggesting the concept that in the brain there is one part that generates a dream world, and another part that experiences it.

But if you want this canonically verified, well this is not a high concept sci-fi movie, it is just a complex action one. My personal opinion is that it is a fantastic one, but it is full of internal and external inconsistencies.

  • That's just not true. The manual is one source of info, but we have the script which explicitly states that the machine connects the dreamers. There's zero sources that suggest that the connect is psychic.
    – Valorum
    Sep 30, 2021 at 17:14

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