In the movie - Inception, who decides how a totem behaves inside a dream?

First of all, in the dream, are the totems manifestations of the dreamer? The architect creates the other parts and constructs in the dream but the dreamers would need to manifest their totems, yes? If that is not the case and the architect has to add the totem to the dream which then leaves for the architect to decide the default behavior of the totem.

If the architect decides the default behavior of a Totem, then a top would be designed to stop and not keep spinning. This would however work for the other totems. The default loading on the die would be uniform and the difference in loading of the die between the dream and real world would let Arthur know if he's awake or not. Also, the architect's own totem, Ariadne knows how her chess pawn is loaded, wouldn't that confuse her between the dream and the real world?

If the dreamer manifested the totem and controlled its behavior, Cobb could keep spinning the top in a dream and can't in the real world. This would help him say he's awake or dreaming. But the problem is, he could "think" his top to a stop, which would mess things up for Cobb. Arthur's die would be a problem too, he could end up "thinking" the loading of his die as it is in the real world, that would put Arthur in trouble.

So to sum it up, who exactly decides the default behavior of everyone's totems to help them confirm if they are awake or not?

  • 1
    Personally, I did not like Cobb's choice of a top for his totem. The loaded die was a better one. If no one but the Arthur knew the loading of the die, chances were he would be able to tell if he was in a dream. It would need to always come up with HIS die's loading. The top was too easy for another architect to decipher. Ariadne could see the top, and know that a real one spins down and falls. She might (rightly) assume that keeping it up is the sign, so to 'fool' Cobb, she would drop it. 50/50 chance to get it right.Lousy choice for a totem.
    – CGCampbell
    Feb 15, 2015 at 13:30
  • Exactly my point.. Cobb's totem requires the architect to handle it's non standard behaviour (ever-spinning). Which is why I was trying to understand if I had it wrong and it's upto the dreamer to define it's dream behaviour. The problem is - while all the totems have an un-standard behaviour in the real world (eg: uncentered loading), Cobb's top has an un-standard behaviour in dreams.
    – John
    Feb 15, 2015 at 17:53
  • @CGCampbell ... I thought I remember that Cobb was using his wife's totem ... which in and of itself was a very bad choice. For sentimental reasons he hung on to it. But, yes, in several ways a bad totem. Feb 15, 2015 at 20:07

4 Answers 4


You are confusing the purpose of the totem. The purpose of the totem is to realise if he is in somebody else's dream. It is NOT for the person to realise whether he is dreaming or not.

It is on the person to keep track of whether he is dreaming or not. That is why nobody else is shown in the movie using their totem to check whether they are dreaming or not.

Only Cobb is shown using his totem to decide whether he is dreaming or not and that too in a way that everybody knows how his totem works.

There are quite a many theories stating that the top is not his totem, his wedding ring is his actual totem; but I don't want to start a debate on this topic now ;).

Now, why Cobb keeps on using his totem is probably because he has been in a limbo, so he cannot track whether he is dreaming or not on his own i.e. he seems ambivalent of what is real and what is not. This is the entire purpose of the ending scene wherein he does not look whether the top is spinning or not. He does not care anymore whether he is in a dream or not, he just wants to live with his kids...

The top is not his totem, the wedding ring is. He uses the top to either fool others so that they don't know what his real totem is, or he spins the top just to remind himself of his wife. Maybe he is just delusional, we can never know for sure as Nolan made the movie ambiguous and even admitted this publicly.

Now, the only time the top is shown spinning is when it still Mal's totem and they are in fact in a dream. The ever spinning top is indeed Mal's totem and not Cobb's. He never tells what he used as his totem when Mal was using the top as hers. Thus the prospects of the wedding ring being his real totem are much higher than the top.

  • 1
    agreed on the first point. My question is what keeps Cobb's totem spinning when he's in somebody else's dream then?
    – John
    Feb 17, 2015 at 14:52
  • How do you know that? It is never shown that Cobb's totem keeps on spinning!
    – Cool_Coder
    Feb 17, 2015 at 15:32
  • Well then that takes us back to what is the key difference in Cobb's totem's behavior (if not constantly spinning) when he is in somebody else's dream and when he's not? The difference in the behavior of the totem is the key that helps a dreamer identify if he's in someone else's dream or not, eg: the loading of the die in the real world is offset and only Arthur knows what offset exactly. (Also, don't they show an ever-spinning top in Mal's safe?)
    – John
    Feb 17, 2015 at 15:39
  • Please see the edit and let me know if you have any more questions.
    – Cool_Coder
    Feb 21, 2015 at 6:14
  • The crux of the question is not about who owns which totem. Cobb surely takes on Mal's totem. I'm looking to understand what causes any totem to behave differently from the totem in the real world. Given that the behaviour of each totem is a secret known only to the owner of the totem, what causes a totem to behave differently in a dream? Is that the architects doing? Or is it the manifestation of each dreamer?
    – John
    Feb 21, 2015 at 8:10

I think what causes the the totem to behave differently is a change made to the totem in the real world, which is known only to the owner. For example, a die that is shaved so it only lands on one number when rolled. So when in a dream of their own, they are aware of the blemish to their totem and it is affected. But when in someone else's dream, the architect would be unaware of any blemishes to the totem, so it would behave differently.

  • ah, which means the architect has to be responsible for the behavior of the totem in someone's dream, is that correct? If that is the case, the architect doesn't know that the top needs to keep spinning forever, yet it does in a dream, who is responsible for that then?
    – John
    Mar 2, 2015 at 4:05
  • 1
    To the first part, yes the architect would be responsible for the behavior of the totem. But to the 2nd part, I am confused again, I have no idea who is responsible for that. Mar 2, 2015 at 20:34
  • It's like a little paradox Nolan seems to have allowed into the otherwise flawless system of the dreams.
    – John
    Mar 3, 2015 at 5:40
  • Yeah, it really is. Mar 3, 2015 at 6:25

The dreamer controls how the totem behaves in a dream, not the creator/owner or the architect. Obviously, if the dreamer is the owner/creator of the totem, then they know how it behaves in reality and can duplicate it in their own dream. However, another dreamer would not know the specifics and would likely make it like any other similar item. That is the purpose of the totem. It allows one to make sure they aren't in someone else's dream (for purposes of extraction).

As per the Inception Wiki (emphasis mine):

A Totem is an object that is used to test if oneself is in one's own reality (dream or non-dream) and not in another person's dream. A totem has a specially modified quality (such as a distinct weight, balance, or feel) in the real world, but in a dream of someone who does not know it well, the characteristics of the totem will very likely be off. Any ordinary object which has been in some way modified to affect its balance, weight, or feel will work as a totem.

Take Aurthur's loaded die, for example. He explains to Ariadne that he can't allow her to touch it because the whole point is that only he knows the exact balance and weight of it. If she knew, she could drug him, pull him into her dream and convince him it was reality by duplicating the die exactly. Then, she could threaten to kill him or one of his allies if he didn't give up some information he had and he might give it up in order to save himself or the other person, whereas he never would in a dream because he knows they can't be killed in a dream. As it is, she doesn't know how to duplicate it. So if she attempted the same scenario, he could handle his die and realize he was in someone else's dream and take control of the situation or at least refuse to give up the information and wait out his captors.

  • exactly. so how does Cobb's (ex-Mal's) totem keep spinning in any dream? Cobb is never the dreamer in any of the levels. Yet his totem keeps spinning for ever. A dreamer would normally decide that the top would stop spinning after some time. But that is not the case. For all the other totems, what you said makes perfect sense, not for the top though.
    – John
    Oct 24, 2017 at 9:00
  • @Tivep I'm not actually sure that we ever see the top spin continuously while in Cobb's possession, but the film never offers an explanation for this in any case. Could be for a number of reasons. One possibility is that Cobb is hijacking the top to make it keep spinning (similar to the way Eames can still alter his own appearance in order to forge while in someone else's dream) in order to check if he is in a dream or reality. Its worth noting that while this appears to be how Cobb uses the top, it is not the intended purpose of the totem (see quote form my answer).
    – user61524
    Oct 24, 2017 at 9:12
  • @Tivep Another possibility is that the dreamer in each case we see in the film ignores the top as part of Cob himself, which makes it uninfluenced by them, thus allowing it to 'ignore' gravity. Another possibility is that since Cobb keeps playing with and talking about his totem, everyone on the team knows how it works and can't help but make it behave in a manner that suggests 'dream' while dreaming. It could also be that Mal didn't use the spinning to check if she was in someone else's dream, but rather the way it felt/fell and Cobb didn't know this.
    – user61524
    Oct 24, 2017 at 9:15
  • If hijacking was a possibility then the totem's usefulness would diminish rapidly. Everyone would end up hijacking their respective totems in dreams and would not be able to validate their realities. if gravity is ignored on the top, then it can be potentially ignored around the other totems as well so the loading can't be compared for instance. I believe this is a bit of an unexplained plothole in the film. Given the rule for a totem is that only that person should know how it behaves, it is unlikely that the person who is enforcing the rule will allow people to know about his totem.
    – John
    Oct 24, 2017 at 9:38
  • @Tivep It seems to be something Cobb is doing consciously, which most would avoid both to keep their sanity and to avoid triggering the dreamers subconscious to attack them. Gravity likely has little to do with the totems. Again, using Arthur's die as an example, he doesn't have to roll it to know it doesn't have the same weight and balance.
    – user61524
    Oct 25, 2017 at 0:36

The idea of the totem is for outside of the architect's construct so that the individual can tell whether they are still in the dream or not. The architect isn't supposed to know how the totem reacts or behaves. To keep the totem pristine, the individual keeps complete control of the totem. If the architect gets a hold of the totem, it is then compromised and would need to be replaced.

From the Inception Wiki:

A Totem is an object that is used to test if oneself is in one's own reality (dream or non-dream) and not in another person's dream. A totem has a specially modified quality (such as a distinct weight, balance, or feel) in the real world, but in a dream of someone who does not know it well, the characteristics of the totem will very likely be off. Any ordinary object which has been in some way modified to affect its balance, weight, or feel will work as a totem.

In order to protect its integrity, only the totem's owner should ever handle it. In that way, the owner is able to tell whether or not they are in someone else's dream. In the owner's own dream world, the totem will feel correct.

In the movie, Arthur tells Ariadne:

"I can't let you touch it, that would defeat the purpose. See only I know the balance and the weight of this particular loaded die. That way, when you look at your totem, you know beyond a doubt that you're not in someone else's dream."

And Ariadne's reply:

"An elegant solution for keeping track of reality."

To better answer your question, the architect decides how it will behave in the dream, but it's really irrelevant to the purpose of the totem in the first place. It's how it works in the real world which matters.

  • Thanks for a reply. However, it is the difference between how a totem works in the real and dream world that matters. To perhaps get to my answer, the first question we could tackle is - how does Cobb's totem keep spinning in a dream? Who is responsible for this? Cobb or the architect?
    – John
    Feb 15, 2015 at 12:54
  • I placed a small edit at the bottom of my answer. The architect does. But they do by only knowing how it looks, not by how it behaves in the real world. Feb 15, 2015 at 12:56
  • My problem exactly, so the architect is not supposed to know how a totem feels like or behaves in the real world. While this makes sense for the loaded dice or loaded pawn, the architect needs to design for a constantly spinning top in the case of Cobb's totem. In Cobb's case he observes if the top stops spinning to say if he's back in the real world. If the architect designs such that the top stops spinning in the dream, Cobb would not be able to say if he's still dreaming. But to design for a ever-spinning top, the architect would need to know how a totem behaves in a dream.
    – John
    Feb 15, 2015 at 13:06
  • It's not the fact that Cobb's top stops spinning, it's how it stops spinning which matters. Feb 15, 2015 at 13:32
  • This answer seems to pretty much just recap what the movie says and what the asker is already aware of and doesn't seem to adress the particular problems that the question sees with this.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Feb 15, 2015 at 15:27

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