In the movie Cobb (DiCaprio) tells Ariadne (Page) that the most important rule in choosing a totem is to make sure that no one else has ever touched it.

This is emphasized with flashbacks showing him changing his wife's dream by using her totem which is the spinning top. If the most important rule is to use your own totem and never let anyone else touch it then why is he using his wife's totem? Is there anywhere that mentions what his original totem was?


I do not believe there is any mention of what his original totem was.

I think we are meant to presume that he adopted Mal's spinning top totem when she committed suicide in what Cobb and we are meant to think is 'the real world' in the story. We are told that Mal invented the totem concept. It could be the case that at the time Cobb and Mal are in Limbo that only she has a totem and that he has not yet adopted that idea. However I think it is fairly safe to assume that as soon as she invents the concept of the totem, that she shares the idea with him and that he has his own totem in Limbo and at the time of her death.

Therefore we can safely assume that he believed he was awake at the time and was using his own totem to validate that state. He seems strongly to believe that they are awake at the time she takes her own life, which appears to support the idea that he has a totem of his own at this point. His thinking might be that since he knows he is awake, he would then be able to adopt and use Mal's totem safely from then on. This is the only answer I have to your question - he took and used the totem when he could validate that he was already in the real-world, and trusted that he could then use the new totem.

However this is one of many points in the movie that are (I believe) intended to make us wonder whether he is still in a dream in the 'real world' at the start and end of the movie. The argument that he could use his own totem to validate his awake state before taking and using Mal's totem seems fairly watertight, particularly as it has an easy to interpret sign (if it does not stop spinning he must be in a dream).

However conversely this easy to interpret signal is also a weak point in using the totem that she designed. Everyone else's totem has something about it that only they understand - Arthur's loaded dice, Ariadne's weighted chess piece. One can imagine that anyone could dream the spinning top falling over, perhaps Mal had a more detailed and subtle understanding of the top that would enable her to distinguish it falling over in someone else's dream.

I am therefore guessing that at the time he took the top, he was in the real-world as he was using his own totem at the time. However Mal's totem because it was not of his design is an unreliable guide, and that we cannot assume that he was in the real-world at the start and end of the movie.

  • I like this answer a lot and it's similar to what I think as well but Cobb is very careful to not let Ariadne touch his totem at all even in the real world. In fact he advises that the totem is made and only touched by yourself so to speak. So he's using his wife's totem, and the guards in the beginning and Saito (Watanabe) have touched it, so how can he ever know if he's in a dream or not. I believe this is the only real determination that can be used to determine if Cobb is ever actually in the real world so I'm looking for why he would use his wife's totem. – Kevin Howell Feb 24 '12 at 17:05
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    @KevinHowell: If I recall correctly Saito touches the totem in a dream and not in the real world. If I follow the logic of the totem correctly, allowing it to be touched when you are clearly in someone-elses dream would be ok. The dreamer at this point is Arthur, so the totem that Arthur would dream would not obey Cobb's 'rules' anyway. Arthur has not touched the real totem, so could not dream its properties correctly. – iandotkelly Feb 24 '12 at 17:15
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    Is there any online resource to wholly understand the movie? – Vijin Paulraj Feb 24 '12 at 17:19
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    @VijinPaulraj there is an Inception Wikia that I've found some things out on, but since this movie in intended to be cryptic I doubt, that unless Nolan tells us directly, we can only theorize and speculate. Also, its worth noting that Cobb never mentioned if he had a totem while him and Mal were in their deep sleep together. – Tablemaker Feb 24 '12 at 17:21
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    @VijinPaulraj - there are so many open ended questions in the movie, that it is probably impossible to conclusively understand it. It seems designed to have a good internal consistency, but to have a small set of inconsistencies / issues - to leave the audience with questions. – iandotkelly Feb 24 '12 at 17:24

I think his totem is his wedding ring. He doesn't wear it when he is awake as far as I remember. Also links in with the back story of his wife dying. I don't know if this is true during the flashback scene to when they are first in limbo however or if they even had totems then.

  • Yes, I have heard that theory. It does kind of fit into my theory that the spinning top totem is not very good, and if the top was a decoy then that would make sense. However a wedding ring on/off totem does not appear at first to be a particularly good totem either - however how your self-image works in the dream world is not very well explained in the movie - Eames is able to project any image he likes, perhaps Cobb projects himself with a wedding ring in the dream world and if he sees it, he knows he is in a dream. Speculative, but an interesting thought. – iandotkelly Feb 26 '12 at 18:49
  • @iandotkelly - Sorry, but I'm not following why you say a wedding ring would not be a good totem. It's innocuous to other observers (how many movie viewers made note of it before totem theories were posted?), but Cobb would definitely note it. Could you elaborate? – PoloHoleSet Sep 6 '16 at 13:55
  • @AndrewMattson ... the purpose of the totem is something that only you understand how it operates - the loaded die for example. No-one else can dream the die operating in exactly the right way, so Arthur can always know if he's in someone else's dream or not. If the wedding ring is a totem then someone he shares dreams with regularly might notice the ring appears in dreams and likewise use that to influence him by dreaming that he doesn't have a ring, making him believe he is not in a dream. However I don't actually say that the wedding ring is a bad totem, I say at first glance it ... – iandotkelly Sep 6 '16 at 14:49
  • ..looks poor, since it seems to suffer from being obvious how it works therefore easy to duplicate. The counter argument is that it is not entirely clear how 'self image' work in shared dreaming. Perhaps Cobb has discovered an alternative to 'traditional totems'. Perhaps no-one can force Cobb's self image to not have a ring. Its not entirely known - but by the explanation of how totems work, it seems poor. – iandotkelly Sep 6 '16 at 14:51
  • I disagree (and comments is not the place to hash that out), but now I understand what you mean. Thanks! – PoloHoleSet Sep 6 '16 at 14:55

As a bit of speculation, perhaps Mal didn't invent the token. Rather the entire idea of the token was a result of Cobb's inception. Rather, he implanted the idea of a token into her mind as a way to convince her that her world wasn't real. Everyone else think that its Mal's idea because she emerged from the dream with it.

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    I think this is wrong. I believe it is implied that while they were exploring dream ideals, using their own memories, she devised a way to differentiate real from dreaming. All this taking place before the 50-year dream state. Then, while in the 50-year dream, in order to convince her that their world was not real, Cobb got her totem and spun it in the safe to plant the idea that her world was not real. – Tablemaker Feb 27 '12 at 5:57

In Inception Cobb was wearing his wedding ring in some scenes and in some scenes he doesn't. After watching the movie so many times, according to me, in every scene of a dream he was wearing his wedding ring and in every scene of reality he was not wearing his ring, which implies that his wedding ring was his real totem!

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    Welcome to Movies & TV. Unfortunately your answer doesn't seem to provide any more insights than idb's already 1.5 years old answer. – Napoleon Wilson Sep 17 '13 at 8:43

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