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The purpose of a totem in Inception is to behave abnormally in the reality. So only you know how it is not normal. In someone else's dream, that person won't know the abnormality of your object, so it will behave normally, thus letting you realise you're in someone else's dream. However, Cobb's spinning top topples in reality and spins infinitely in a dream. So if Cobb is someone else's dream, the top should topple. Doesn't that defeat the purpose of a totem?

I know Cobb is an experienced dream-sharer and must have some other ways of keeping a check on reality. But what was the point of showing Cobb use the top to 'check reality' if it doesn't behave as a totem should?

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  • @BCdotWEB: Cool theory, but I somewhat disagree with the exclusion of the ring theory. If you're in a dream, the dream "creates" the totem, and because the dream isn't aware of the totem's quirk, it erroneously creates a "normal" totem. The same is true for Cobb. He considers himself a married man, which is why the dream renders him as a married man (with a ring). However, even though he considers himself married, he doesn't own the ring anymore in real life, but the dream doesn't know that (just like it doesn't know about any totem's quirks). – Flater Oct 18 '17 at 13:02
  • There are many questions on here that skirt around how good the top is as a totem, whether it was indeed his real totem etc. I don't think this is an exact duplicate of those questions, but its close. I would recommend looking at questions under the inception tag – iandotkelly Oct 18 '17 at 15:46
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    I thought the totems were for you to know you were in your own dream. You will always know you're in someone else's, won't you? :O – BlueMoon93 Oct 18 '17 at 15:58
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    @BlueMoon93 Not necessarily. Remember in the beginning, Saito thinks they are in his own dream, while they're in Nash's. A totem will behave as you know it should in reality as well as in your own dream, because you are aware of how it works. Only in someone else's dream, they won't know how your totem is special, so realising the difference, you can realise you're in someone else's dream. – Tejas Oct 18 '17 at 16:46
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This is not explained in the film

And as far as I've found has never been addressed by the filmmakers either.

I believe the only possible in-universe explanation is that dreams have some consistent properties that are different than reality, that would, for example, cause the top to always keep spinning in the universe of a dream.

This isn't impossible--maybe dreamers consistently think of a top as spinning for a long time, so in their dream they don't ever expect it to fall over. You could argue that, just as Arthur's loaded die totem is treated as a regular die in a dream, a top would be treated as a spinning top that doesn't fall over since that's our expectation for tops.

This would also explain how things that are not possible in reality can be implemented by architects (e.g. the Escher staircases and Cobb and Ariadne being able to walk onto the road after twisting it at a 90-degree angle); the dreamer understands things like gravity to work a certain way such as by anchoring you to the road, whether or not it is consistent with reality.

However, the movie does not specifically demonstrate this to be the case; everything else in the movie apart from tricks that come from playing with the dream universe appears to work as reality would, including physics. So arguably, a dreamer should expect Cobb's top to work like a real-world top, and fall over eventually.


My personal opinion is that, whether or not Christopher Nolan recognized the issue with the top, it just works well for viewers since most people have probably experienced something similar to the top always spinning in their own dreams. Especially, I feel it works significantly better for Cobb's inception of Mal. Seeing the spinning top get locked into the safe in her mind is stronger for the viewers to see versus Cobb leaving a loaded die in there or something like that. So the top's use as a symbol outweighs its actual strength as a totem.

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    'Seeing the spinning top get locked into the safe in her mind is stronger for the viewers to see versus Cobb leaving a loaded die in there or something like that'. This is what I wanted. The top fails to be a reliable totem for more than one reason. However, I actually can't think of a better way to depict Cobb's inception on Mal than an infinitely spinning top. +1 – Tejas Oct 18 '17 at 15:53

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