02 September 2011

Those virulent ideas...[]

I was thinking today, as I often do, about the world of the movie Inception.

Specifically, I was wondering about totems, the small, personalized items that most of the "team" carry with them at all times to let them know whether or not they're dreaming.

Except, they wouldn't really, would they? The concept seems a bit flawed, in that it would only work in certain instances, as I shall illustrate.

The basic idea behind carrying a totem is that it is something which only the bearer knows perfectly. It appears relatively normal, an everyday object (because we all carry around chess bishops with us at all times), but one that has been modified such that only its bearer knows its particular quirks. In the case of Arthur, only he knows exactly how his die is weighted; only Ariadne knows how much weight she drilled out of her chess piece, and how it affects the balance; only Eames knows how his poker chip has been modified; and only Cobb...er...no wait everyone knows how Cobb's totem is supposed to work, but I'll get to that later.

image source: http://cache0.bigcartel.com/product_images/38952371/inception.jpg

The point is that if the object is reproduced by someone else (in someone else's dream), it will likely lack that key quality which only its bearer knows, which will be a constant reminder to the bearer a that (a) he/she is dreaming, and (b) it's in someone else's dream. This is illustrated quite well with Saito's rug: he is instantly able to tell that he's not in his apartment because the rug into which his face was pressed should be natural fiber, not synthetic (anyone can tell the difference, even asleep!).

Here we run into the first problem, however: those in dream sharing are (now stay with me) dreaming. Cobb mentions to Ariadne in the café scene that dreamers only realize that small inconsistencies in the dream world are overlooked by the dreaming mind: "Dreams feel real while we're in them. It's only when we wake up that we realize something was actually strange." Given that, how is one supposed to be able to tell that something's actually different or wrong? We can only suppose that those who are actually looking for specific differences somehow are able to keep enough awareness to spot them (still doesn't explain Saito's carpet-connoiseurship though).

image source: http://pantyfire.tumblr.com/post/1449105137/saito-carpet

Second problem: totems are supposed to stay relatively secret. That's part of their point. A good point man could do the research and, once the totem is known, use other clues to deduce what might make the deception easier.

Example: suppose the dreamer knows that Arthur's totem is a die. Most common thing to do to make a die different is to load it. One in six chance. Actually, it might get better, if you account for what people bring into dreams. We know that invaders can bring their own mental projections with them into others' dreams (e.g. Mal and the kids); we know that a suggestion can cause someone to put one's own mental projections into the dream world, even when it isn't the target's own dream (Saito could put his secret information into the safe in Arthur's dream). Suggest to a dreaming Arthur that he check his die somehow. He rolls it, knowing that it is weighted. There's every possibility that just him knowing that will cause him to experience the die landing up exactly as he knows it should. Bingo.

Third problem: related to the second point, suppose the dreamer knows nothing about your totem. Say, for example, you're actually going into the dream of someone not on your team, but actually the target (this happens when they enter Robert Fischer's dream for the third level — which makes me wonder how they got the right dream maze in any case, and how it survived after he dropped into limbo), who may have no idea what a totem is in context and furthermore no expectation that you may be carrying one (he assumed that Cobb and the others were his own mental projections, not real people, as per the Mr. Charles gambit). In this situation, whence your totem? It can only come from your own mental projection of it, which will naturally have it behave as you know it should, so it serves no real purpose other than possibly leaving you confused as to whose dream you're inhabiting, if any dream).

In fact, the only totem that really seems like it would work would be Cobb's, because it's defining trait is not a matter of weight, but of location. If he's awake, it topples; if he's dreaming, it keeps spinning. But that doesn't seem like it should work, for much the same reasons we've seen above: several people know how it works and what he's expecting to see (even Saito recognizes it when his brain's "turned to scrambled egg," despite the fact that he only saw it for a brief moment in the first dream level), and even those who don't, if any projection of theirs can be formed, aren't likely to think up a top that doesn't topple. If it's his own projection he's forced to bring in, he knows it topples in real life, so if he's looking to make sure of where he is, it will only follow his suspicions at the time — what he's expecting to see.

An elegant solution perhaps, but I don't see how it would actually do what it's supposed to do within the world of the film. If you think I'm wrong, let me know in the comments, of course.


Note: I still love the film more than any other in the past few years...it's just that once an idea invades it works its way through my brain so that I have to explore it for a bit.

Second note: All images were found via Google image search. Their sources do not necessarily reflect anything about my personal opinions or whatever, and vice versa. The quote I found on IMDB.com.


  1. The totems didn't let them know if they were awake. They let them know if they were in their own dream or not.

  2. Also, you put entirely too much thought into this, as it was all in the script and is not possible IRL anyway. Go write an angry letter to Christopher Nolan, that always solves everything.