Inception, Lucid Dreaming, Totems and Tests

I should have posted this last Monday (directly following the initial inception post) but real life intervened and I was sort of scraping the bottom of the barrel for content that was quick and easy to produce. Now that things got back to normal I can go back to typing in slightly over a thousand words per post or so. Let’s talk about totems as defined in Inception. And id you haven’t watched the movie yet, I guess I should warn you about the potential minor spoilage.

When discussing this intriguing topic many people make the same mistake and assume that you can use a totem to determine whether you are dreaming or not. That’s not what the are for. They are used to detect whether you are in someones dream. That’s why you are never supposed to let anyone touch them. The totem’s properties and the way it behaves is kept secret so that a potential dream architect can’t emulate it. If the totem behaves oddly, then it is a good indication that you are experiencing a shared dream in an environment supplied by someone else.

The question is – can you use a totem to determine if you are in your own dream. Perhaps you can, but then again your consciousness is intimately familiar with the totem. You expect it to behave a certain way, and so it might do that in a dream. So for example if you are using a loaded dice that always rolls 6 and you train yourself to expect a 6 then your subconscious mind may actually deliver it. So if you need a sure-fire test to determine if you are awake or asleep, a totem is not a perfect tool. Unless of course we talk about Cobb’s totem.

I believe his totem has a unique function. He uses a spinning top, which allegedly keeps on spinning if you are in a dream. This seems like a plot hole or a flaw though. If you think about it, a dream extractor who would want to con Cobb would instinctively make his top wobble and fall rather than spin forever – because that’s the expected real world behavior. You could argue that Cobb looks for specific wobble that the top generates due to the way it is weighed down, but that is not what you see in a movie. He actually looks for the constant spin and lack of wobble. His totem is useless… Or is it?

I believe that Cobb is using his Totem differently than everyone else. Cobb has been infected by the same idea he planted in his wives mind – that he is still stuck in limbo. Actually, one could imagine that he hopes that this would be the case as it would mean his wife was still alive, and he could stop feeling guilty. So when he uses his totem he tries to force it to spin forever. In a dream, that can happen. In the real world it cannot. So when his totem wobbles and falls, it tells him that he is either awake, or in a dream he cannot control – both of which are states favorable to that of limbo.

At least that’s my take on the “defective” totem. What do you think?

Also, can you think of effective totem like devices or concepts that help you determine whether you are dreaming or not? Obviously we don’t need Inception style secret personal totems because in the real world the shared dream state simply does not exist. But sometimes it is good to know whether or not you are dreaming. For example, if you are having a nightmare, knowing it is just a dream allows you to take control and end it or morph it into something pleasant. How do you determine whether you are in a dream or not?

I personally have never used a totem but I do have few tricks that are worth sharing. Your subconscious mind is pretty bad at generating stuff of high complexity and detail. For example computer interfaces never seem to look or behave the right way when I dream them. So if you are technologically minded person like me, just trying to use a computer within a dream is usually a dead giveaway. If it’s broken, if the screen is inexplicably blurry and hard to read, if you can’t for the life of you conduct simple troubleshooting steps – you might be dreaming. If that test is inconclusive, just pull up reddit or digg and try reading a few top stories. Books and magazines are also good for this. Concentrating on the details – such as the layout of the text, the pictures, individual words usually fails spectacularly.

Share your own lucid dreaming tips in the comments.

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10 Responses to Inception, Lucid Dreaming, Totems and Tests

  1. copperfish Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    Finally got round to seeing the film today. It was good, but somehow I expected more. Stylistically and visually it was fantastic. The whole look and feel of the movie really worked.

    Conceptually there were some interesting ideas, but the nested dream world (or virtual reality) has been done before in films like the 13th Floor. It came across as really well done, but not really new.

    I did like two aspects of the film. First the idea that our experience of reality is perception and creation all at the same time, second: we can never really know we are in “the real world” and have to choose to believe we are in reality based on our own set of rules and logic.

    The totem – assuming an architect knew about Cobb’s test he could use the behaviour of the top to influence Cobb’s behaviour. His test is interesting because it’s only accurate if nobody else knows about it (true of all totems I suppose). Anyone who knew about it could “fake” reality. Even then you have the totem meaning:

    1. A dream (infinite spin) – a fair bit of control of your world and options to exit up or down dream levels (kill yourself, dream again).
    2. Reality (normal spin and fall) – limited control (can influence but not reshape the world) except for exit up (death and whatever view you have on life after death if any) and down (dreaming).
    3. No meaning at all because you can’t trust that noone else knows or you can’t trust your own subconcious.

    Have to love philosophical questions :)

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  2. dawn SWITZERLAND Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    I just know when I’m dreaming. I can’t explain how. I’ve had a few nightmares and every time I knew that I was dreaming and that the only way to wake up would be to physically move, so I shook my body in my bed until I opened my eyes. (Heh, my own Inception-like kick!).

    One way to figure out you’re in a dream in my opinion is other people’s behaviour. In my experience, when I dream, things turn out in my favour.

    You’re right about details, Luke. When dreaming I get what people want to say, but never hear entire sentences. Sometimes they don’t even speak. Another thing is how passive I find myself in a dream. It’s like I’m static and the world moves around me.

    PS: Once I had read a lisp tutorial before going to sleep. During that night, I was woken up by a loud noise and in that moment, code descibing the situation appeared in front of my eyes. Truly wicked. (If only people could have such an interactive experience with programming)

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  3. copperfish Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    Thinking about dreams after this film I remembered something which really showed me how your mind uses dreams to resolve things.

    I remember playing Hexen and being stuck on a level where I couldn’t find a switch to open a door to get into the next area of the game. I played for a couple of days running around the same environments but not getting anywhere. During a dream I was doing the same thing, but noticed the door switch hidden in an archway as I ran past. The feeling I got from solving the problem woke me up and I went immediately to play the game and found the switch. I must have seen it subconsciously while playing but not noticed it consciously.

    I suppose a game is a simple environment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we do that with dreams and our interpretation of reality all the time. I just can’t think of an example.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ dawn:

    I had dreams where I was coding as well, but I rarely actually see the code. It is more of an idea of the code logic that I’m thinking off rather than the syntax – and I can’t recall even that after I wake up.

    @ copperfish:

    I thought that I read some article about how our brain continues to process, categorize and sort through the daily inputs after you go to sleep. This might be why “sleeping on it” is usually a good advice for most problems. Not because you have a cooler head in the morning but because some cognitive processing does happen while you sleep providing you with a better picture of the issue at hand.

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  5. Tino UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    ** spoilers **

    “So when he uses his totem he tries to force it to spin forever. In a dream, that can happen. In the real world it cannot. So when his totem wobbles and falls, it tells him that he is either awake, or in a dream he cannot control – both of which are states favorable to that of limbo.”

    Son, I am impress :)

    But… hmm… this was originally his wife’s totem, right? Before everything went down, she used it the same way: if it spins => this is a dream. He used that to plant the fatal thought in her subconscious. But then, why did she so badly want the top to spin forever that the totem worked for her?

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  6. Victoria UKRAINE Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    Funny to think about, I have never dreamt a computer interface or working with a computer despite my doing so 16 hours a day.

    I usually either know or don’t know whether I’m dreaming. I do not remember ever realizing that I’m in a dream in the middle of the process.

    I only had several dreams of waking up and realizing I was still asleep. One of the most interesting things is remembering a dream in a dream.

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  7. Matt H. Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Oddly enough, I don’t need an object to tell whether I’m dreaming or not. It seems that when I am dreaming I am unable to run. Its a struggle to get one foot in front of the other to run in my dream. Normally, I can run just fine. So, If I can’t run very well then I know I’m in a dream.

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  8. Zeke Google Chrome Windows says:

    i rarely know im dreaming, and i have a very difficult problem sometimes when its early. i will “wake up”, do my normal routine, and wake up again, and again, and again, till i am woken up. i have only had one lucid dream, because i tripped and bounced instead of hitting the ground hard, i figured it out, and i controlled my dream to my whim untill my alarm clock woke me up. odd stuff, dreams are.

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  9. gochi CZECH REPUBLIC Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Being an architect, assuming I put you in my dream, I would design a natural obstacle stopping you from using your totem since I can control actually the whole world. Say, I could make you to loose your totem or to forget it somewhere. Of course this not necessarily has to be so straight forward as you never forget your totem in your desk or something. But I can create something constantly distracting/preventing from using it or simply make you to believe it is impossible to use it. In case of the dice I can set up 0 gravity, in case of the spinning top the same trick. Again, you can find it very suspicious permanently staying in 0 gravity, but I can go deeper and invent other supplementary obstacles. It is a matter of being a good architect.
    Event though you finally get you totem to work, wouldn’t you ask yourself – is that all or I’m still missing something?
    My point here is once you get in to a hostile dream/virtual reality I can hardly see a way off proving you got out on 100%.

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  10. Adexis CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    There’s not much I can say about The top being effective or not, but I can say this: If you want an actual effective totem, it has to have a few specific colors/pieces to it. for example, a fork with the third tine cut off. During the day, every time you think of it, you have to count the tines and say to yourself, “the third one is missing”. In a dream, you can’t count reliably, and the tines would be inconsistent. They may ‘float’ or waver and you could end up counting six tines!(Having a tine cut off is not necessary but simply using a single normal fork might not work — forks usually have 4 tines and the ‘dream self’ might assume there are 4 without counting.)

    Some people prefer to count their fingers on one hand instead; this probably works but again, I’d worry that the ‘dream self’ would assume there is a normal number of fingers.
    I guess the trick is to count, count, count every chance you have while you are awake to train yourself to NOT assume while asleep.

    My totem is a homemade mask pendant with 4 raccoon teeth set into it(sounds creepy, I know). I count them and list the 2 colors of the mask.

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