I'm looking at information about totems as I'm slowly coming down from this glow that I have after watching such a fantastic movie, and finding a lot of people talking about them.
And I am seeing a lot of holes and misconceptions.
First of all: Cobb's totem is defective, or, more soundly, ineffective.
For a totem to work, only the owner can know of any special properties. Everybody knows that his totem spins forever in the dream and falls in reality. Since they all know this, when they bring him into their dream, his top might stop spinning.
Second: Totems don't have to have any "special" properties.
I'm looking around at some people's concepts of totems, and they're making up fantastic possibilities:
-fishing lines catching certain fish
-card decks staying in certain orders
-and so on.
In truth, totems are nothing so complicated. A totem is simple something you can carry with you in a dream and only you are familiar with. Presumably the pawn is weighted on a certain side only, and is easy to topple only in a certain direction. It's the same property as the weighted die. The only catch is, no-one else can know the special property. This is where Cobb's top fails.
A totem can be the simplest thing in the world as long as you know it intimately and no-one else does. Even though Ariadne hasn't spent much time with her totem, the pawn or bishop, as the others have, the simply act of making it is a familarization process. Anything that you making lovingly and uniquely becomes part of you, and the balance of the object, all of its flaws and perfections, is burned into you, into them. This applies especially to people who commonly use their hands to create art.
Third: a lot of people are confusing dream signs with totems and vice versa.
A dream sign is something that you can look at within your own dream to be certain whether you are dreaming. Depending on the skill and experience of the dreamer, this can be a broad range of things. I've listed some of the more common ones below:
-Clocks and watches: Look at them, then look away, and look at them again. In real life, they run sequentially, systematically, and logically; in a dream this may not be so. In real life, only a few seconds may have passed, but in the dream it may show a completely different time, it may have changed between being digital and analog, or the face and/or number may have completely disappeared.
-Light switches: In reality, throwing a light switch causes something to turn on or turn off. In dreams, very often, they simply don't work.
-Mirrors: Look into them in reality and you see your world, reversed and reflected back at you. In dreams, mirrors sometimes don't reverse the images, and occasionally turn into windows or doorways. Go ahead and try to touch the surface of the mirror. Don't be afraid, those of you who have watched "The Matrix." Remember, the worst thing that can happen is that you wake up.
With all of these, however, depending on the degree of experience the dreamer has with lucidity and control, any of these tests may fail. More experienced lucid dreamers will have personal and more extensive dream signs to look for in their own dreams. Those new to dreaming are encouraged to stick to these.
Totems, on the other hand, are an object that you always keep with you, and only you are intimately familiar. The effect this brings is if you are drawn into someone else's dream, they may have tried to recreate your totem so it feels like you're not in a dream at all. Since they don't have intimate knowledge of your totem, it is impossible for them to recreate it perfectly.
Totems are used to identify you're dreaming while inside someone else's dream. Dream signs are used to identify you're dreaming while in your own dream. On top of that, totems are useless while you are inside your own dream. Since you and you alone have intimate knowledge of the totem, there's no reason you can't recreate it perfectly within your own dream.
This is one of the reasons of the debate over the end of the movie. If Cobb is trapped in his own dream, the top will fall even if he were in reality. On top of that, so many people know of the top's properties, it would be child's play to drop him into a dream world where his top does fall.
Totems and dream signs are two very different thing with very similar uses but only within their own separate and very different contexts.