Several times in the movie, Cobb says that no one should touch your totem, which would otherwise lose its ability to tell you if you're in a dream or not.

I understand, there is no "magical" ability in the totems. Just a way they are done/built, how their owner feels them so that you're the only one knowing how they should behave in reality and in dreams.

The other people wanting to trap you in a dream would then not be able to recreate all these details, which will then help you know if you're in a dream or not.

Concerning Cobb's totem, the top: it was Mal's totem, before being Cobb's totem. Then Saito also plays with it near the end of the movie. Several people touched it then and can know how it feels, even if they don't know the forever-spinning thing.

But Cobb also tells to Ariadne during the movie the special ability of the forever-spinning of the top in dreams. Ariadne could, mixing this with the information of people having touched the totem, recreate this in a dream and then fool Cobb.
As it seems she wants to help him, she knows all that, as well as his after-work dream sessions, she could have built a dream to trap him and having the top falling in the dream, having Cobb thinking he's in reality. In particular, the end could be a dream with Ariadne influencing the top's spinning.

At the end, is the top's spinning a reliable fact to know if he's dreaming or not?

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    Other people would also have to know what part of the totem is used to decide whether it's a dream or not. – user1320 May 29 '11 at 8:06
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    Yes but if I'm correct, he tells it to Ariadne, who could then tell it to anybody. He's not the only one knowing that in dreams it spins forever. – LudoMC May 29 '11 at 8:09
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    there is also a theory that states that the real totem is his wedding ring which he uses only while dreaming. – santiagozky May 30 '11 at 14:16
  • Detailed the question which was not enough detailed at first. – LudoMC Jun 2 '11 at 11:00

The issue isn't that the totem suddenly loses some magical ability if people touch it. The totem would work fine no matter how many people handle it.

The point of the totem is that it's got some special property that only you know about, and if someone else handled the totem they'd be able to recreate it perfectly.

As long as no one can recreate it perfectly, if someone else ever tries to trick you in a dream, you'll know because your totem won't be quite right. However, if they'd handled your totem, then they might be able to recreate it perfectly, so you would be none the wiser.

EDIT: To extend the answer, the totem would be reliable against anyone who had not touched it, and would not be reliable against people who had. It's not really stated how difficult it is to recreate a compromised totem in a dream well enough to fool its owner, but given that the dream architect is able to recreate almost anything by thought and memory, I'd say it's not that hard. Just as they don't have to concentrate on every individual fiber of a rug to recreate the rug, they wouldn't need an exact measurement of every physical property of the totem.

It's a matter of the brain's intuition; I liken it to our natural ability to judge the trajectory of something traveling in a parabolic arc without having to know all the formulae to mathematically describe it, nor any measurements of its current speed and/or vector.

  • Yes, I understood is was not "magical" but things/feeling about it that only you know or build around it so that other people, not knowing this, could not have it behaving the same way in a dream they would have built. – LudoMC Jun 2 '11 at 10:46
  • Revised my answer a bit. – Asmor Jun 2 '11 at 19:04

The real issue is he never lets it finish spinning after he "tests" the drug out near the start of the film. He is either interrupted or it falls off the surface he is testing. I am in the camp that everything after the "test" is a dream.

  • There's some real implausibilities in what is apparently the real world, which suggests bad plotting or clues that this is still a dream. – David Thornley Jun 2 '11 at 3:27
  • Interesting comment, as I wanted to watch agin the movie to check when was the last time it stopped spinning when Cobb is using it. – LudoMC Jun 2 '11 at 10:47

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