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In the train scene, when Saito was having information extracted by Cobb, the extraction team were using a two-layer dream. In the lower layer of the dream Saito knew that he was in a dream because the carpet was the wrong material.

I've always hated this carpet. Stained and frayed in such distinctive ways. But very definitely made of wool. Right now... I'm lying on polyester. Which means, I'm not lying on my carpet in my apartment. You have lived up to your reputation, Mr. Cobb. I'm still dreaming.

But I don't understand how Saito worked out that he was in a dream in the upper layer, where Cobb and Arthur were explaining about how they could defend against extraction to Saito? What tipped him off?

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It is stated in scene in the apartment and reinforced in the helicopter scene following the failed attempt at Extraction that Saito was in-effect interviewing Cobb for the attempt at Inception, and that initially Saito thought that Cobb had failed the interview until he realized that they had put him in a two layer dream.

It is implied that he had therefore deliberately allowed himself to have the attempt at Extraction made on him and that he was prepared - by being mentally prepared he did not seem to store too many important secrets in the safe, and that he was suspicious of their approach to sell themselves as anti-extractors.

Later in the movie, they use the 'Mr Charles' gambit and deliberately make Fischer aware that he is in a dream. Perhaps the gambit they use against Saito where they pretend to be friendly Extractors pitching to train a wealthy individual to defend against extraction work well against a mark who is not expecting it. Against Saito, who is prepared and has allowed himself to be introduced into a shared dream, maybe it is an approach that makes him become aware that he might be dreaming.

This is also the scene where we are introduced to Mal, she speaks to Cobb as he begins his attempt to break into the safe, and then enters the room with Saito and Arthur at gunpoint. Together with her subsequent appearance in shared dreams with Ariadne, this begins to suggest that Cobb's subconscious projection of Mal is directly working against him - perhaps that she directly warned Saito.

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  • "It's my subconscious. Remember? I can't control it."
    – Jon
    Feb 3, 2023 at 9:08
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Saito knew from the very outset that he was in a shared dream. Nobody and nothing gave the game away, aside from the fact that he has the ability to tell if he's in a shared dream.

ARTHUR: Saito knows. He's playing with us.

As to how he gained this skill, we learn in Inception: The Big Under that Saito regularly frequents a dreamcade (a shared-dream arcade run by the Yakuza) where he's gained the ability to lucid dream and to recognise when he's in a dreamworld. Knowing that a single-layer dream is unlikely to work on him, Cobb's fairly brilliant stratagem was to create a two-layer dream and to populate the lower layer with an environment that Saito is intimately familiar, defeating or deflecting his ability to detect that he's dreaming.

To some extent it works. Saito is astounded to learn that despite all of his experience as a lucid dreamer, they've managed to get around his defences and trick him. It's only through bad luck (and sloppy work) that he detects it at all.

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