In the movie Inception, the concept of a Totem is that is has a special distinguishing feature, maybe weight or dimension or feel or something else - i.e. its different from a run of the mill piece of the same type.

The basic concept is that in reality, the totem doesn't behave/feel/weigh like how someone would imagine/guess it does.

But the spinning top as a totem doesn't make sense at all. It's distinguishing characteristic is that it stops spinning in reality. This makes no sense because all tops stop spinning in reality - so it behaves like anyone would guess a top should behave.

The opposite would have made more sense - i.e. in reality it has some special characteristic which makes it spin more than regular tops.

Or am I missing something?

For the purpose of this question, it doesn't make a difference whether the spinning top is Cobb's totem or Mal's totem. My point is that the Spinning Top doesn't make sense as a totem at all, irrespective of whose Totem it is.

  • Why does this feel like a duplicate? I somehow recall discussing the fact that the top as a totem is pretty big fault in a movie that is supposed to call attention to details. I completely agree, the top is the worst totem of all. May 9, 2013 at 23:21
  • @GorchestopherH - I found this - scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/3840/… but that says it's not reliable because others have touched. What I am saying is that it's an un-totem even if others hadn't touched it.
    – user93353
    May 9, 2013 at 23:26
  • 1
    Yeah, I suppose it's only familiar because I've made the exact observation myself. It's useless at a totem, because in the dream world it does something physically impossible. Of course, a totem only tells you if you're in someone else's dream. So it's not like it has any use to assure you that you're in the real world or not. I feel it's a pretty big flaw for what it tried to be. May 9, 2013 at 23:30

4 Answers 4


Think about what we see.

  • We see Cobb spinning the top in a dream. It doesn't stop spinning
  • In the "real world" (or what we assume is real), we see Cobb spinning the top and examining it as it does. We see the top stop spinning and fall.
  • We see the top spinning as the movie fades to black

But let's look at the script again.

Cobb fumbles in his pockets, pulls out his spinning top. He tries to set it spinning on the back edge of the sink, but it FALLS to the floor and rolls towards the door- Saito is there. WATCHING Cobb. He looks down at the spinning top.

What is Cobb really doing when he's watching the top?

INT. BATHROOM, WORKSHOP - CONTINUOUS Cobb STUDIES the spin of the top as it decays, becoming more and more ECCENTRIC...




Cobb GRABS it like a drowning man reaching for a lifeline.

He's studying the spin of the top. Now let's think about Arthur's weighted die. There is more to it that just the fact that it's loaded - it's weighted specifically; it will always feel a certain way and it will always behave a certain way.

What if Cobb isn't watching to wait and see if the top falls over at all, but waiting to see how it spins?

But wait! Cobb said it would never topple in a dream!

Yes, yes he did. But he was referring to Mal's totem.


This one was hers. She'd spin it in a dream and it would never topple.

Just spin and spin...

There was some previous discussion on whether or not the top is still reliable as a totem. And this brings us back to the question of whether or not the top really is Cobb's totem at all.

Throughout the movie, other people touch the top (even if only within dreams). The one rule was to never let anyone else touch the totem so that no one could ever figure out the secret trait(s). But Cobb is just telling Ariadne - the architect - the secret trait? Now Ariadne could insert a top that always falls into the dream and Cobb would never know he was in a dream. So, that's good evidence that either the top is not the totem to begin with, OR that the fact that it never falls is a misdirection.

  • It doesn't matter whether it was Cobb's or Mal's. A top which would just spin and spin and never topple only is a dream is a very flawed totem - it's an untotem.
    – user93353
    May 9, 2013 at 23:25
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    I think this is a case of an over-analyzed movie. Totems only tell you if you're in another person's dream. So, in your own dream, to know if you're dreaming or not, a totem is useless. From what it seems, a totem isn't very useful or integral at all in the first place. May 9, 2013 at 23:25
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    the point of the totem was so Cobb could convince Mal that limbo was reality by messing with her's. that's the only reason it's in the movie at all.
    – childcat15
    Oct 30, 2013 at 19:01

i believe that Cobb's totem was actually his wedding ring. After Mal's death, in all the "reality" scenes, Cobb is not wearing his wedding ring. In all the dream sequences, he is. Cobb adopted Mal's totem, so it's not really his. On the other hand, Mal is so important to his subconscious that his dream avatar will always wear the wedding ring. This is the trick; in the waking world, he would never wear it, but in the dream world he must because his subconscious can't imagine a representation of himself without it.

  • My point is about the spinning top, irrespective of whether it's Cobb's totem or Mal's totem.
    – user93353
    Nov 30, 2013 at 4:22

An important thing is that in a dream, there is no top, there are no real totems. Whilst the person in the dream can ensure the totem is present in the dream, the architect takes care of the behavior of the totem. In the case of the loaded die, the architect would probably choose to implement a uniformly loaded die.

Based on who is going to be in the dream, the architect has to make provisions for the totems. The architect would be able to create the totem, but wouldn't really know the secret behind the operation of the totem. Is it possible that the architect always ensures that the top totem continues to spin indefinitely as a default implementation? If this is done then each totem would behave differently in the dream and in reality.


The totem in the movie was a unique thing that everyone who goes in the dream should have and should have distinctive property. The reason why it should have distinctive property and no one should know about that was because like if someone else knew about the totem the top cobb had and if cobb was sharing the dream with that person then the person could project a fake top same as cobb had but the person could control it's physics so if cobb would have turned the top in the dream it would have been possible that the top could have stopped spinning and fell down. Now this would have been a disaster for cobb because he believed that top would only stop spinning in the real world and would spinning in the dream. Now it would have been a real disaster for him as he would totally get confused in the dream and the reality. Now i hope you got the reason why a totem was used and it should have unique property. Now about the spinning then can you tell how on the earth it could make possible for the top to spin till eternity it could only be donned in dream that is the reason it was chosen like that. Hope you understand now.

  • You have really not read my question have you? Or read it and not understood it.
    – user93353
    Aug 9, 2013 at 16:24
  • you asked "why top stopped spinning in real life but not in dream that made no sense" so i clarified that that is what i got from your ques
    – Deiknymi
    Aug 10, 2013 at 3:33

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