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.