The trouble with telepathy

07 Jan

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problems with telepathy. Writing about it, understanding it, using technology to develop it, and how humans would respond to it.

My recent fascination was prompted by an article in Popular Mechanics called Brain-to-Brain Communication Is Closer Than You Think. Lest you decide that Popular Mechanics has taken an unexpected new age turn, let me point out that the subtitle of the article is “Don’t call it telepathy, but call it very cool.”

The article describes a successful experiment in which a video game player wearing an electroencephalography cap (which records brain activity) decides when to shoot, and a second player in another room wearing a transcranial magnetic stimulation coil (which emits a focused electrical current) over the part of his brain that controls finger movement, does the actual shooting.

Researcher Chantel Prat at the University of Washington Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences and one of the designers of the experiment cautions that “This is not the X-Men version of telepathy where you hear a disembodied voice. … Whatever shape [this] takes is going to be very different than listening to someone’s thoughts in your head.”

magicYes, it may not be the classic telepathy of fiction, but we are talking about direct brain to brain communication here, aided by modern technology. The article goes on to address possible real life uses including already successful work on adapting a brain-to-machine interface to help paralyzed patients walk by using their brain signals to control prosthetic devices. This is cool, and it is really happening.

It reminded me of an article I read a while back about how neuroscientists have recreated movie clips by looking at a person’s brainwaves. It also reminded me of the waves made by Mark Zuckerberg in 2015 when he wrote “One day, I believe we’ll be able to send full rich thoughts to each other directly using technology. You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too.”

He was referring to an advanced form of this sort of brain-to-brain communication, using something like a VR headset to encode brain signals into bits and send them to another person for decoding and playback. You can read more about this in my post Telepathy and Technology, where I quote The Washington Post as responding with “even if Facebook isn’t leading the charge toward telepathy — a worrying concept in itself, given the site’s past indiscretions re: research consent and user privacy — the field poses tons of ethical challenges.” True. Cool things like this tend to have a ton of implications that we haven’t considered.

The second thing to set my synapses firing about mind reading was hearing about Connie Willis’s new book Crosstalk. I haven’t read it yet for a few reasons, one of which is that I’m not that big a fan of her writing based on To Say Nothing of the Dog, her one book I have read. But that was written twenty years ago and it’s time to give this science fiction great another chance.

ganzfeldThen I read an interview with her in Wired. The quote that got me was “Willis does enjoy writing about the paranormal, but as far as she’s concerned it’s pure fiction. For her new novel Crosstalk, a romantic comedy about telepathy, she did extensive research into the history of psychic claims, including the notorious Rhine experiments. ‘I found no evidence at all of actual telepathy,’ she says. ‘I don’t buy it.'”

A lot of people would agree with her. However, I was put off by her tone. How odd to write a book about an ability and yet to harbor no feel for how it could be possible, and no sense of “maybe, if ….” to help bring the magic to life. I probably will read Crosstalk eventually, but now I’m in less of a hurry to do so.

However, Ms. Willis does make an interesting observation in the interview. She says “Let’s say telepathy became the norm … the first thing that people would begin to do would be to attempt to stop that, for themselves at least. They would try to build barriers, mental barriers or physical barriers—I don’t know, tinfoil hats maybe or something—that would prevent other people from being able to read their thoughts … I don’t think most relationships could survive if you knew virtually everything that flitted through the head of your partner.” Good point, In fact, a very good point.

And this brings me to the third reason why telepathy is heavy on my mind these days. I’m finishing a book of my own, the sixth book in 46. Ascending, and it is revisiting my hero Lola and her organization of telepaths. Obviously new problems have arisen, including the discovery of non-empathic telepaths, once thought to be impossible. As my heroes and villains go to increasing lengths to keep each other out of their heads, I’m forced to confront just how difficult day-to-day life would be in a world where telepathy is common. It’s forced me to revisit my own world-building, and to better define my own fictional ideas about what telepathy is.

I’ve had to conclude that while technologically aided brain-to-brain communication is cool, is likely, and poses dangers, it is not what I am writing about. I’m also trying not to write about X-men style sentences popping unbidden into the heads of others. Rather, I’m playing with the idea of extreme empathy. I postulate emotional connections between skilled receivers that enable the exchange of ideas without words or machines, and I’m having some fun finding the charms and the limits of my particular theories.

Do I believe in them? I tell people that I’m a scientist first, and a writer of science fiction second. To me, being a scientist means believing that any thing is possible. It also means knowing that while many things are highly improbable, the universe has a way of surprising us, no matter how much we think we already know.


1 Comment

Posted by on January 7, 2017 in telepathy, writing


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