Inception dream levels explained in flowchart

You knew this was coming. I’d call spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen Inception yet, but honestly, this flowchart from graphic designer Sean Mort will just confuse you anyways. If, however, you’ve been fortunate enough to see the mind roller coaster of a film already, Mort’s chart makes perfect sense and might clarify any confusion. Levels and dreamers are labeled accordingly. I think the line for Cobb to Limbo should start at Level 4 though.

[via datavis]

Update: Sean provides a revised version after seeing the movie for the third time.


  • Hmm…it’s a nice chart, but I would say that Cobb enters limbo from level 4 rather than from level 1. While certainly, entering limbo is not unrelated to the events in level 1, the same could be said for Saito. So, were I to modify it, I would remove the line connecting Cobb in level 1 to Cobb in limbo and instead connect Cobb in level 4 to Cobb in limbo.

    • Cobb entered in limbo at level 1 because he died of drowning. he still escaped the 3 levels (by dying in the dream with the before-dream still open) but died at level 1. :)

      • A similar statement could be made about Saito’s death. He died from a wound he suffered in level one. That wound bled its way into the lower levels as time progressed.

        Cobb may have died because of events in level 1, but he was in level 4 when it happened. Likewise, Saito did because of events in level 1 but died in level 3. The criteria used in the diagram aren’t consistent between the two characters.

      • Saito died of the bullet in all deeper levels simultaneously. However, the same can be said for Cobb – he would have drowned in all levels. So, either link it to the level they sustained the death; or link it to the level they were currently in.

  • Didn’t Fischer die in dream level 3 along with Saito? Wouldn’t that make dream level 4 limbo?

    • But level 4 was Cobb’s dream, and there was the whole exponential time thing. Did Fischer ever fully die?

      • saito was kiled by the dream and its defenses – fischer if he was actually killed – was done by MAL who was part of Cobbs subconscious therefore cobb knew hed find mal with fischer in his dream – the 4th level is cobbs not limbo ( just looks like it – for obvious reasons)

  • I thought dream level 4 is limbo. They went down to level 4 with Fischer because he died.

    I presume Cobb’s line from level 4 to level 1 is because they showed him waking up to that dream (but not any of the others)? Can’t quite remember.

    • Fischer never actually ‘died’ he was revived soon enough. In addition to this, if I remember correctly, before Cobb and Ariadne go into level 4, they hook Fischer up to the dream machine.

  • Nice. Label for topmost level should probably be “Reality?”

  • Level 4 was (is) Limbo… The Level 4 “buildings” outlined in the above graphic were created by Cobb and Mal (his wife) during their time in Limbo… So, the additional “Limbo” layer is technically incorrect and should be eliminated.

    Also, totally agree with the others that Cobb entered Limbo (Level 4) from Level 3. The line linking Cobb from Level 1 is incorrect and should be eliminated.

    Otherwise, a really cool graphic…. Xtra points go to anyone who can visualize the “return” paths (upward) for each individual that were initiated by each “Kick”….!!!

    • Level 4 isn’t Limbo. In the Level 3 dream, Cobb goes into his own dream, that’s why the line from Level 3 to Level 4 begins at Cobb.

  • J. Bernard Jones August 4, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    This would be great if it weren’t wrong.

    Where is Dr. Niles?


  • I saw this on twitter, makes me happy that people are seeing my work. I saw the film again last week and came to a different conclusion. So I’ve amended my design.

    Hope this is better

  • You could say that Cobb entered Limbo from level 1 because he didn’t escape the van and drowned. Then when he died he was sent to limbo like Saito.

    What do you think?

    • That’s true I suppose. But he stayed in Limbo with Mal so I just assumed he didn’t die and stayed there. Frazzled

      • Sean/Rich…

        I believe that the “kicks” that were synchronized to wakeup everyone at each level prevented Cobb/Saito, and anyone else from dying on Level 1/2/3 etc..

        I assume that Cobb & Saito’s excursion in Limbo was just a second’s worth of time in the (underwater) van. So, although both men were drowning on Level 1, they were still (technically) alive when the synchronized kicks guided them instantly from Limbo to waking Reality.

        I remember a part in the movie that said if any team member died in the dreamworld then they would die in waking Reality (i.e. while travelling on the plane). Since they all woke up, I’m taking that as proof that no-one actually died.

        (( Of course, the counter-argument is that Cobb really did die and the rest of the movie was Cobb’s dream… In the last scene, you never do get to see if the spinning top stops spinning… grin ;-)

        Still, I’m (somewhat) sure that no-one died. Just goes to show how involved (and inspiring) this movie is… Once again, many thanks to Sean for making the graphic that’s prompting all this discussion….!

        P.S. – it would be truly fun to see if you could layer the return trips onto the current graphic…!

  • They enter Fisher’s subconsciousness in order to plant an idea. So every level is Fisher’s dream, otherwise it would be kinda pointless. He needs to think he came up with the idea, and the way to do this is to trick his subconsciousness. They need him to fill up the dreams in order to trick him.

    Someone just stays behind to set up the kick in order to prevent people from entering Limbo.

    Ariadne just designed the dreams, and the others are ‘parasites’ in Fischer’s dream..

    In Limbo everyone can create a little piece of his own, so there is just one Limbo. Saito made his Japanese castle, and Cobb made his city. Since everyone shared a dream, the Limbo contained both pieces.

    If you die in Limbo, you just wake up in the real world (if you died in the other dreams as well). The only reason they inserted the kicks is to prevent anyone from entering Limbo, which would mean ~50-ish dream years. Mal and Cobb committed suicide in Limbo which was a few layers deep (how else could they be stuck there for 50 years but not be any older when waking up in the real world?).

    Presuming the ending is still Cobb’s limbo, the only thing not explained is: do you need to be conscious about the fact you’re in Limbo to wake up or not? Since Limbo is on the 4th layer, 1 hour would be 50 years or so (if the factor 10 for speeding up time is correct). In 50 years Cobb would be like 90 years old in Limbo and just die of old age. Would he then wake up in the real world just 1 hour later than the rest? That’s the only question still remaining for me.

  • Satio died at level 1. The death of Satio in level 3 was just reflecting the death of Satio on the upper level. (Satio getting worse as he went down to lower level and actually Satio did not get hitted at level 3, He just died!)

    Cobb died at level 4 as the refused to escape when the world of level 4 collapsed. Cobb actually did not wake up any level above level 4. He directly waked up at reality.

    Since Satio died at level 1 and enter in Limbo much early and Cobb died at level 4. the time scale of Satio was highly exponential magnify and much older than Cobb when they met.

    Also, there should be no connection between level 4 and Limbo. Even going deeper in subconscious does not mean go to Limbo.

    • Explain it more clearly:

      The process of the death of Cobb and Satio were going opposite direction.

      Satio died at level 1 and thus all Satio at the lower level has to die.

      Cobb died at level 4 and thus all Cobb on the above could not wake up. He went to Limbo and then wake up directly at reality.

  • Okay firstly this diagram is right and 100% correct.

    Its been driving me crazy how many people think the 4th level – cobbs dream is limbo when it is CLEARLY not for a number of reasons.

    1. When someone goes into limbo they dont remeber theyre there . THATS why limbo is dangerous, otherwise remember when saito gets shot in level 1 – they would have just killed him and reminded him to kill himself when he got down there and hey presto hes back on the plane – but you dont remeber when your in limbo. At the end Cobb doesnt know whats going on until him and saito chat for a while and realise they are not in reality.

    2. Ariane gets fischer and jumps off the building and wake up on the snow level , they get a kick from jumping off the building (the falling feeling kick) people say they killed themselves and it was limbo but then they would wake up in the plane and not on all the other levels.-(when you die in limbo its kicks u back to reality and skips all other levels)
    sidenote!!! – ariane remebered everything including fischer the kick process etc so it cant have been limbo as she wouldnt remeber.

    3. If cobbs in limbo already why does he wash up on a beach with no memory to find saito

    4. Fischer is not killed by the snow dream or its defenses (if he really is killed isnt clear) but he is shot by MAL who is part of COBBS dreams hence to get fischer back cobb knows he can find him in HIS dream and knows hell be near mal.

    5. Saito enters limbo during the snow level, if level 4 isnt cobbs and is limbo then cobb would be as old as saito but he isnt because he doesnt enter limbo until later. ( he drowns in level 1 and goes to limbo) thats why ariane says to leave cobb because she knows hes going to find saito in limbo.

    6. Finally cobbs dream begins to be destroyed and deteriorate – limbo cant be destroyed.

    7. The reason why cobbs dream looks just like the limbo him and mal created is because that would most likely be in his head as he spent alot of time in limbo so the memorys are strong.

    8. those who say how could cobb create his own dream so fast with detail – remember he was a very skilled architect and he already had made a similar world in limbo – you CAN create straight from memory but you shouldnt ( remember cobb convo with ariane in paris)

    I HAVE ONE QUESTION THOUGH – would love it if someone could answer this.

    when cobb and mal are in limbo – how does cobb realise they are ?? mal does because cobb plants the inception inside her head because he wants to leave to go back but she doesnt believe him (so he plants inception to get her to agree to die n go back and he does it for pure curiosity of inception)

    • They kept their knowledge and memory in Limbo because they entered in manually (dream to get there).
      Technically, you can’t go to 4th level. Because the team can only do 3 levels, stated by Yusuf. That being said, when they dream in level 3, they goes to Limbo.

    • HOW exactly does everyone wake up on the plane from the first (rainy) level (Yusuf’s dream). When the van hit the water, that only brought everyone (except Cobbs and Saito) back to level 1… wouldn’t they need a kick from reality to get back to reality? If there is no kick, doesnt it take a week in the dream world (1st level) to get out (10 hour flight)?? They would all have been killed and ended up in Limbo unless they got woken up.

      • @John,

        According to the rules of the Movie, there appears to be 3 methods of leaving a dream state:

        #1 – The Kick.
        #2 – Dying.
        #3 – Dream Share Timer.

        I theorize that since Yusuf was in charge of the first Dream level, he did not need heavy sedation like the other individuals. “Heavy sedation”, is used only to go into deeper dream levels.

        Here is my assumption: Yusuf, after surviving the Van sequence and because he was NOT under heavy sedation, was killed to wake up the others. In the plane, Yusuf begins to wake up the others via a Kick, with the exception of Cobb & Saito, which are in Limbo.

        I hope this helps, but I can’t guarantee I’m right.
        If anyone has a better explanation, be my guest.

  • One way you know it is all a dream is that there are compartments on the Shinkansen train.

  • Replying Louis:

    Remember Cobb opened the save in his limbo with Mal, and he spinned the totem? That way he could know it is limbo, but not reality.

    But question is, how did he implant that concept into Mal? I still don’t get the use of the passage “You are on a train, you know where it is going but you are not sure, but it doesn’t matter…”

    Can anyone answer me?

    • That sentence was: “You’re waiting for a train. You don’t know where its gonna take you to. But it doesn’t matter. Because you know we would be together.”
      I think, he meant, you are waiting to die. You don’t know if it will take you back to reality or it will just kill you. But as long as we do it together, it wouldnt matter..

  • Wonderful concept.. Keep it on..!!

  • I’m reading everyones points, and getting confused further… doesn’t anyone remember when Satio was shot, Eames wanted to shoot him (to kill) so that he could wake up. BUT then Yusuf explained that it wouldn’t work because of the heavy sedative. That instead of dying like you normally would, if you died in the dream world, you were automatically sent to LIMBO. BUT only because they were under such heavy sedation.

  • At the beginning, wasn’t ariane killed by mal in the first level of dream? I thought if you die in a dream, you go to limbo.

    • No, if you die you wake up – that’s how Cobb woke Arthur up in that first dream sequence.

      You only go to limbo if you die and cannot wake up – such as being sedated.

  • cobb going from level one to limbo is right. He doesn’t die in the 4th level, but while he was in four the van was in the river so he drowned. Thus making him die in level one.

  • I agree with everything in Louis’ long description back in August. I’ve gotten confused however with HOW exactly everyone wakes up on the plane from the first (rainy) level (Yusuf’s dream). When the van hit the water, that only brought everyone (except Cobbs and Saito) back to level 1… wouldn’t they need a kick from reality to get back to reality? If there is no kick, doesnt it take a week in the dream world (1st level) to get out (10 hour flight)?? They would all have been killed and ended up in Limbo unless they got woken up.

    to sum up: Cobbs and Saito die in Limbo when they realize they’re in limbo and they wake up in the “real world”, but how did the others get there before them without a kick… They don’t at all seem confused…

    • They were sedated on the plane, they all woke up after the sedation wore off (they were disconnected from the dream before then, since it was all put away). You can wake up without a kick, they probably just laid low in level 1 until they woke up naturally. They didn’t have Fischer, his subconscious wouldn’t chase them.

      Cobb and Saito must have returned to level 1, or just entered their own dreams. Shrugs what happened to them tbh.

      • Alright, so they hung around for a week without getting chased cause they didn’t have Fischer and woke up when the sedation wore off (stewardess must have disconnected them sedation wore off)

        I guess I thought they would constantly be chased on level 1 even without Fischer.

  • Flow chart has one level too many.
    Level 1 (first dream) – “Van Chase” – dreamed by Yusef on the plane.
    Level 2 – “Hotel” – dreamed by Arthur in the van.
    Level 3 – “Snow Fortress” – dreamed by Eames in the Hotel – (this is the target level)
    Level 4 – “Limbo” – no-one is a dreamer (shared state)
    However, the film starts with Cobb and Saito in the Limbo level….

    • That’s one too short.

      Level 1 – City – Yusef’s dream; Ariadne’s design; heavy sedation sustaining sleep.
      Level 2 – Hotel – Arthur’s dream; Ariadne’s design; heavy sedation sustaining sleep.
      Level 3 – Snow – Eames’ dream; Ariadne’s design; no heavy sedation, normal rules. [1]
      Level 4 – Cobb – Fischer’s dream; Cobb’s design; unconscious, normal rules? [2]
      Level 5 – Limbo – Shared dream; former’s design[3]; no awareness of being asleep.

      [1] Death in level 3 would wake you up in level 2, as they weren’t sedated between these levels.
      [2] Fischer can’t have died, he would have woken up in the hotel. Dead people also can’t be revived.
      [3] If Fischer had died, and ignored the wake-up rule, he would have been in Limbo for months/years before Cobb and Ariadne joined him. Mal was a projection, she cannot enter limbo without Cobb’s subconscious to create her.

  • I wonder if anyone noticed but I think that at the end we were shown not Cobb’s coming back to reality but him in Mal’s dream. Remember, when (about 48th minute of the film) Cobb and Ariadne were discussing totems:
    Ariadne: – Was it your idea?
    Cobb: – No, it was Mal’s actually. This one was hers. It’d spin in her dream and would never stop – just spin and spin.

    And at the very end of the film Cobb spins “his” totem on the table and it just continues to spin.
    What do you think of that?

    • I think that was just a leave-you-hanging moment. It looked like it was starting to wobble, but it cut out before you actually saw it topple. It’s to make you think. Is he in reality? Is reality even real? Maybe the whole time Mal was right, and they were still one dream deep. Who knows?