I didn't understand this concept from inception. if the totem will stops spinning, you are in real world? Maybe your dream thinks that it will stop spinning. So what does Arthur do with his dice or Ariadne does with her Totem, the Bishop chess piece?

  • If the top keeps spinning perfectly then it's a drem. To it to be reality, stopping of the top is not required, evn if the top actually moves vertically or horizontally even a little bit, it's real world.
    – user5421
    Apr 14, 2012 at 9:18
  • Why do you assume that the top is Cobb's totem? Sep 13, 2014 at 2:21

5 Answers 5


That's specifically not stated; the idea behind the totem is that it has a behavior that only the real owner knows; if you are in a dream someone else is creating, they will not know of your totem's specific behavior, and, thus, not replicate it, allowing you to realize that it is a dream.

The dice, for example, could be loaded, and tend to always come up showing sixes.

It serves an additional function; if you have a specific behavior that you give it IN THE DREAM but not in real life, then you can can use it to identify a dream that is not one that you control; i.e., in real life, the die may come up 6 most of the time. In the dream, if you are in control, it will spin on it's corner. If it does neither, you know that you are in a dream someone else controls.

  • So, are you saying that he knows how it spins in real life (not just whether it will fall over or not), but in the dreams they always make the top spin forever?
    – Casebash
    Jul 12, 2012 at 23:42
  • Again, it's not really stated exactly. For all we know, in the dream, it may start to float after spinning a bit. Or may do that trick where it suddenly flips upside down, that some tops really do. But it was originally his wife's; the only thing we know for SURE about it's behavior is that it can't spin forever in the real world; arranging for that to happen in Limbo is what he used to insert the idea of where they were into her mind in a way that her subconscious would accept. His use of it beyond that we can only speculate on - it's RL behavior can be assumed.. but only the RL behavior.
    – K-H-W
    Jul 13, 2012 at 0:26

I think it's similar to the carpet at the beginning. When Saito is thrown on the carpet at the beginning, he knows he's in a dream because the carpet is made of the wrong material, something most people wouldn't know or realize.

The totem is a special example of this phenomenon where you create something that only you know what it's true properties are, so they can't duplicate it in a dream. Arthur's dice is weighted and only he knows how. The chess piece that Ariadne makes was made custom by her. She is shown knocking it down, and so she knows how it felt to knock it down, how much force it took, etc.

They are also very careful not to let someone else touch the totem, so only they have knowledge of it.

I think you can take this a step further in the movie with regards to Mal:

When Mal and Cobb are in limbo, she locks her totem away, not spinning. In her mind, she's convinced herself that limbo is the real world. Cobb finds the totem and sets it perpetually spinning. By manipulating her totem he's manipulating her mind into recognizing that limbo is, in fact, a dream. Making her face this fact is what allows them to escape.


If Cobb's spinning top totem stops spinning, does this mean he is in the real world?

Well if we listen to what Cobb says about it then it appears as: Yes, the top stops spinning in the real world.

But that is really strange. It works against the principle of token-items having a real-world uniqueness that the dreamer does not know about and leaves out. All the other tokens are unique items that become regular in someone else's dream. The spinning top does the opposite. It behaves as expected in the real world and uniquely in the dreams of others (we do not see Cobb use it in his own dream).

This is peculiar.

It might actually be that even the "real world" in the movie is a dream, one of Cobb's dreams, but Cob does not know it. In the first layer the spinning top acts like a real spinning top, and when he goes deeper (and knows that he is in a dream) it starts to act funky.

Why he is dreaming in the first place I do not know. Maybe someone wanted him to dream this to get over Maul.

Just a theory.

(But if that is the case, why did he not wake up all the way when he killed himself? It is not fool proof.)


As the other answers have clearly stated, the purpose of any totem in the Inception universe is to allow the owner to distinguish the real world from a dream, by using something that only they know the properties of. Arthur's dice, Ariadne's weighted chess piece are deliberate totems, Saito's carpet in his apartment was an inadvertent totem as the architect of that dream did not know what it was made of, yet Saito clearly did.

However in my opinion the very simplicity of Cobb's totem is its undoing. If the property of the spinning top is only that it will fall over in a the real world then it is a very poor totem indeed. The physical rules of the real world are broken often in the dream world, but often the dream world appears very normal. It is not hard to believe that a dreamer will dream the a spinning top falling over.

Extractor's appear paranoid when someone wants to touch their totem in the real world, as they may be able to deduce the physical property that makes it uniquely identifiable to them. Cobb's totem whilst important sentimentally to him, is not a good totem if it is only this one obvious property that is used by Cobb.

For me it does not matter whether the top falls over at the end of the movie, there are enough doubts about the use of borrowed totem to make it an unreliable guide.

  • 2
    There is a theory that the top isn't Cobb's totem - it's his wedding ring. (What was his totem before he got the top from his wife?)
    – Izkata
    Feb 26, 2012 at 2:12
  • @Izkata: Yeah, I've heard that. It makes sense that a really cautious person might use a decoy totem like that. I need to watch it again to see whether the ring on/off thing holds. Feb 26, 2012 at 2:16
  • @iandotkelly: But why use a decoy totem that isn't really a totem?
    – Casebash
    Jul 12, 2012 at 23:39
  • @Casebash - exactly - this is a key question - is it Cobb not thinking through the implications of this totem very well, or is it not his real totem? Personally I think it is his totem, as he is very flustered in the Mombassa basement and uses it in the washroom. The very fact that he uses it when flustered shows that he believes it to be real. Jul 13, 2012 at 2:41

The spinning top is his wife's totem, not Cobb's. Cobb's totem is his wedding ring. He's wearing his ring when he's dreaming and he is not wearing it when he's awake. Totems were unique and specific to each person. The top was his wife's treasure - his was her, and her memory is manifest from the wedding ring.

  • This is a fan-theory, and not one that's supported by any canon evidence.
    – Valorum
    Sep 12, 2014 at 19:23

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