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The trouble with telepathy

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.

 

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2017 in telepathy, writing

 

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Telepathy and Technology

magic

Telepathy is direct brain-to-brain contact. In x0 it is a poorly developed human sense somewhat like touch or smell but understood far less well. It is most often an emotional feeling received from someone else which is sometimes accompanied by a mental image, or sounds or words heard in one’s head including tunes or songs. It can also involve a physical sensation such as falling, nausea, or cold, or the memory of a smell, touch, or taste.

After I writing x0 I began to occasionally search for news about telepathy, and I noticed an increasing number of stories about using technology to achieve the same effect as psychic powers. In 2013 I described a story in Science about lab rats who had their brains wired together such that what one rat learned could be transmitted by direct wire to the other. Turns out that the other rat listened better if he got a treat for doing so (big surprise) but basically they communicated pretty well with what the researchers call a BTBI (brain to brain interface).

A couple of months ago Mark Zuckerberg made news by saying that the future of communication is telepathy. In a Q&A session with site users, 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.”

The Washington Post responded with a well done article analyzing how this could work. They talked about the linked rats, as well as a University of California at Berkeley study in which a team of cognitive scientists managed to reconstruct clips of movies their subjects were watching, based solely on measurements of their brainwaves. They described how in another experiment involving a noninvasive technique called “transcranial magnetic stimulation” test subjects in India were able to think words to test subjects in France. The Washington Post added that “the process was painfully slow, however, and the words weren’t sent in their entirety — they had to be encoded as binary digits, uploaded to the Internet, sent, downloaded and then decoded as flashes of light.” Yes, painfully slow.

horseThe article quoted Mark Harris at the MIT Technology Review as saying “‘Telepathy’ technology remains so crude that it’s unlikely to have any practical impact.” It concluded by noting that “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” which, lucky for us, “is many breakthroughs and advances away.”

Yes, it is. But it is worth remembering that most big advances began very slowly, at first, and their use and their impact were poorly understood. For decades, many people laughed at the idea of a fancy machine replacing something as reliable as a horse. We all know how that one worked out.

 
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Posted by on October 7, 2015 in telepathy

 

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Becoming more emphathic

My hero Lola is a highly emphatic person who finds that, in her fictional world, her empathy is a pathway to telepathy. In the reality in which you and I live (we do live in the same reality, right?) empathy may only be a pathway to becoming a happier and kinder human. That’s enough incentive for me.

red-shoesBut how does one become more empathic? Consider checking out this article on Six Habits of Highly Empathic People by Roman Krznaric. There are real things one can do. My personal favorite? Experiential empathy.  Walk a mile, or ten, in another person’s shoes and discover just how hard it is to criticize, much less hate. Of course, if the shoes look like these, it may also be hard for some of us even to walk…..

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2013 in peace, telepathy

 

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Seeing as how you’re going to have a little wire running into your brain anyway ….

One of the problems of writing speculative fiction, I suppose, is that reality has a way of getting weirder than the stuff you make up. So I’m going on about how amazing telepathy would be and how it would work ……. and then ….

glasses1. My son sends me this link to check out google glass …. a technology he describes as both fascinating and frightening.  No question he has a point.  In the end, why bother with the glasses? He may be squeamish about having an implant in his head someday, but I bet that the generation that comes after him by and large won’t be. More entertainment and information faster, brighter and better?  I think we’ve already proved as a species how we respond to that.

2. My news feed (yes I embrace all this better brighter information too, although I think in the end I do refuse the implant) just threw up a story in Science about lab rats who have successfully had their brains wired together.  What one rats learns can be transmitted by direct wire to the other.  Turns out that the other rat listens better if he gets a treat for doing so (big surprise) but basically they can communicate pretty well with what the researchers call a BTBI (brain to brain interface).

ratNot a big step to set these rats up with little wireless transmitters, is it? Then they can walk around talking to each other like all those obnoxious people in the grocery store checking in with their wives to see if they should get 1% or 2% milk.  Only there are no vocal chords involved. One rat learns something and sends it straight to the others brain  It’s like …. it’s like …. yes folks, we have telepathy.  If we’re lucky, it can use the same implant that’s giving us that wonderful feed from Google.

At least the dairy aisle in the grocery store will be a little quieter. It could be an improvement over cell phones.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2013 in telepathy

 

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A Believer’s View of Telepathy

Writing x0 took me down the path of researching telepathy and in October 2012, I posted about the skeptics point of view.  I offered the most compelling arguments I encountered against the existence of any sort of extra sensory perception.  I also pointed out that while writing x0 I had come to appreciate both the the desire for truth and the effort to help others avoid scams that appears to compel telepathy’s strongest detractors. The fact is that a wide variety experiments, conducted thousands of times over decades, have failed to produce convincing evidence that telepathy exists. And some of these folks have really looked.

From Crystalinks.com

From Crystalinks.com

And yet …… according to a 2005 Gallup Poll, about one third of Americans believe telepathy is real.  These believers are more or less evenly divided among age, gender, race, income, education and region of the country. Don’t believe me? Check it out here. This prompts me to wonder whether we are such a wishful species that some of us will accept an appealing idea as true even after multiple experiments appear to disprove it, or whether many of us choose to ignore massive amounts of data because our own experiences suggest a different truth. Websites such as Crystalinks suggest the latter.

Part of the problem, I think, is that tests for telepathy tend to center around conveying information.  What color of dot am I thinking of? What number between one and ten? Quick. Concentrate. Answer. Yet no one I am aware of claims to have ever had a mind to mind transfer of this kind of information. Rather, telepathy is a gentle nudge, an added awareness that involves feelings, not facts. It speaks in symbols, like dreams. It whispers of primal sensations, leaving you sure of the essential emotions, but vague about the rest.

So it did not surprise me to learn that the one test for telepathy that has shown statistically significant positiveganzfeld results is the “Ganzfeld” experiments in which one person is shown photos and film clips and tries to send a sense of the feelings behind these images to the receiver. The receiver has four choices, and after 6700 tests receivers made the right choice about 28% of the time.  This is instead of the 25% one would expect. Impressive? Frankly, no. Not to you or I.  But to a statistician, it is. In fact, if you assume, like the book x0 does, that everyone can project their feelings but only a telepath can receive them, these results suggest that about 3% of the population is somewhat telepathic.

But how? The human brain is a complex electrical and chemical device.  Companion book y1 discusses how  neurotransmitters travel through the brain carrying thoughts and feelings with a precession that is astounding. Might it not be possible for another brain to detect some of this activity? We smell each other. Our eyes can detect light from a star a billions of miles away.  Our ears hear a whisper that corresponds to a pressure variation of less than a billionth of the current atmospheric pressure. Are we so that sure we know of every type of sensory receptor that every one of us has?

How contagious is the fear felt around a campfire where ghost stories are being told? The anger of a mob, the exhilaration of sports fans, and the growing confidence of a group on the path to accomplishing something great all give testament to the idea that we catch feelings from one another.

From Wired

From Wired

A researcher in Sydney recently finished a five-year study monitoring brain activity during therapy sessions and used electrodes placed around the head to investigate how two people can become physiologically aligned. And  according to an article in Wired, the U.S. army is investigating ways to wire brains to communicate “pre-speech” thoughts. And in spite of the fact that we all know that we pick up countless tiny clues from each other that can be misconstrued as telepathy, sometimes the feeling that there is more to it than that is overwhelming.

Other work has suggested that after two people spend years together, their brain waves become more similar. It’s late, and I’m about to go curl up in bed with the man I have slept next to for the last three decades. I know him almost as well as I know myself, and as I drift off to sleep I sometimes have a sense of knowing how he is feeling.  Am I picking up some of those those tiny body language clues? Of course I am. Am I using my knowledge of him and of the kind day we have had? Certainly. Is there something more?  Maybe ….  just maybe.  I’m open to the idea, anyway.

 
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Posted by on January 6, 2013 in telepathy

 

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