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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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Who’s in charge of this body?

I do tend to latch on to things and get enthused. My latest fixation is a blog called This Gives Me Hope by Cathryn Wellner. She is a woman determined to locate 1001 things that, well, give her hope, and then to tell me and you about them.

Thing #585 doesn’t sound terribly hopeful at first. Cathryn had a friend tell her that folks with multiple personality disorders sometimes have better or worse eyesight depending on which personality is in charge. That seems odd. She did further research and [I quote directly from Ms. Wellner’s wonderful blog]

“Her comment about visual acuity and MPD sent me on a search. PubMed has a link to research that appeared in the 1996 Journal of the American Optometric Association. The New York Times still has a copy of a 1988 article online that says, in part:

For more than a century clinicians have occasionally reported isolated cases of dramatic biological changes in people with multiple personalities as they switched from one to another. These include the abrupt appearance and disappearance of rashes, welts, scars and other tissue wounds; switches in handwriting and handedness; epilepsy, allergies and color blindness that strike only when a given personality is in control of the body.”

raising 2The very idea of rashes, welts and scars appearing at the mere behest of the personality currently in charge has an almost eerie feel of demonic possession to it, until you think about it more. What this tells us is that the human mind is a powerful thing, certainly in terms of the control it wields over the body to which it is connected .

In my novel x0, I join countless others in postulating that our minds are capable of far more than we generally acknowledge. A brain that can create a scar can also reduce one. If a rash can be created, a rash can be eliminated. And so on. If you think about it, there is tremendous hope in this message.

The wonderful poster above is from the Facebook page of Raising Ecstasy, and it makes me wonder if what weighs us down the most is often the negative thoughts that we foist upon ourselves. Thanks Ms. Wellner for passing along the hopeful message that  research and observation support the theory that each one of us is in charge of our own bodies, and we can do far more good for ourselves than we realize.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in telepathy

 

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What did I say wrong?

The process of writing a book about telepathy gave me plenty of opportunity to think about how we as humans provide comfort and support to each other. Or not. In my book I treat empathy as a sort of “baby telepathy” in which the truly empathic can feel the pain of another, as they live one step away from reading another’s thoughts.

heartIn real life, we all know people who are kind of like this.Yet even these concerned, caring types don’t always say the right thing. In fact, sometimes they come out with awful responses, in spite of their obvious empathy, and they often expect to be excused because their heart was in the right place. It seems like it’s not always enough to have a caring open heart. Why? I think that even the most empathic people feel the need to express their own fear, anger, and sorrow or just to make observations or share what they know. Being empathetic doesn’t make you any less human.

ringsI was delighted to come across an article in the Los Angeles Times called “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing” by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman. It describes an approach for how to share your own observations and feelings in a crisis. It’s called “comfort in, dump out”. Basically you getting out a piece of paper and literally drawing rings around the name of a person having any kind of a crisis. Closer rings then get filled in with the names of those closest to the person: immediate family and best friends. Then, coworkers, friends and acquaintances, and distant family members all go in increasingly distant rings by name or in groups. Finally you put your self in the appropriate ring, whatever it may be. Now, the way to avoid unintended ghastly behavior is to say nothing but comforting things to those inward from you. Period. Nothing more. Just comfort. On the other hand, you can rant and rave, or share your fear or knowledge on the subject involved all you want with those in rings further away than you.

This is brilliant. I really like these people.

I came across this article by way of one of my favorite blogs, called Otrazhenie. Please check out the blog article here. There is a lot of interesting embellishment, and the site is well worth a visit!

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2013 in empathy

 

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What if I really do know what you are thinking?

scallopsMy husband and I had a telepathic experience the other night, the kind that couples frequently have. Something special was needed for dinner and the cupboard was bare. “Wait we could have…” he began.  “We sure could,” I agreed. Dinner was prepared without either of us once mentioning the wonderful Nantucket Bay Scallops we’d frozen at Christmas. It was a warm, fuzzy mental exchange.

But do I really want to know everything he is thinking? Everything you are thinking? Worse yet, do I want you to know everything I am thinking?  Recent discussions about privacy and national security have bought up the argument that those who have nothing to hide should not be alarmed when their innermost secrets become known. Deep inside, no one I know agrees with that.

mindI do very little if anything that is illegal or even unethical. But some times I do or think things that embarrass me. Or things I think can be hurtful. If I sneeze too hard I pee in my pants. I think you’re kind of cute. I called a person in another car a “fucking asshole” on the way to work today. Whatever. I’m not perfect and yet I care that I’m not and therefore I don’t want you examining every flaw of mine. I don’t even want you to have the opportunity to do so. And frankly I don’t want to examine your flaws either.

In the novel x0, telepathy is a gentle skill, usually conveying emotions and seldom conveying specific information. Telepaths are considerate, they mind their own business. And even the unaware can put up walls to protect themselves.  It’s telepathy the way I’d want it to be.  Not very invasive.

As to everyone’s increasing ability to use technology to follow my behavior, and even perhaps to misinterpret my actions or my intents? Sigh. ….. A world with telepaths is starting to look like it would be the least of my privacy issues.

For more thoughts on “what if” check out my z2 blog post on what if this could last forever?  And see my y1 blog post on what if you could look like anyone?

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2013 in telepathy

 

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Watch what you wish for

An old friend gives me a hard, meaningful stare. It is April 2012 and I’ve just published my first book, x0 and I am telling him about the plot.  His response?  “Careful what you wish for.” Then he adds in a warning tone “Life imitates art.”

Icarus: click for print

Icarus: click for print

The visit has not gone so well and this friend is already well on his way to becoming a former friend. His odd response to my story of a telepathic loner who discovers kindred spirits through her unusual mental talent finally clinches the deal. The implication behind his warning has always irritated me. Don’t reach for your dreams or you may lose all. Our culture is full of fables of backfired wishes and the assorted smiting of those who reach too high. The very myth of Icarus warns those who would chose to take flight and touch the sun.

Not that I don’t get the “cherish what you already have” side of this issue. It’s about balance. Again. Savor the moment and reach for the stars.

So what happened once I started to reach? Did my former friend’s dire warnings come true and have I found myself fighting off strange telepathic urges, kept up in the night by the sounds of countless souls? No, I found myself joining writer’s groups on the web and reading a lot of other blogs. It turns out that, just like in real life, I don’t have all that much in common with many of the aspiring writers out there fighting for attention on all the sites. And I am not terribly compelled to join in the countless threads of conversation on every blog I visit.  I’m a loner, even online. Maybe especially online.

visit the farmlet

visit the farmlet

But it also turns out that there are folks out there with whom I share commonalities. I met a wonderful writer named Bob Craton who has penned a series about four pacifists fighting to save their home world. I met a wonderful blogger named Christi Killien who tells a fascinating tale every week about life on her self sustaining farmlet. I’ve had people review my books who seem to get what I am saying far better than people who know me well. Wahoo!

And just this past week I’ve had a reader contact me to complain about all the mistakes in x0. Mistakes? I was horrified. The book has been professionally edited and proofread within an inch of its life. Okay, she offered.  Let’s call them “puppies” so you do not get so defensive. I knew as soon as she proposed using a new word, that I had the good fortune to meet yet another kindred spirit online. She is now in process of showing me what she means, taking some of the more difficult passages in x0 and rewording with a light touch that makes the concepts clearer. I will be using her input to give x0 a gentle tweak someday soon, and the second edition will be better for it.

As she and I exchange ideas, I think of the other remarkable writers, readers, and bloggers who have touched my heart and mind since I published x0, and then I think of my former friend’s dire warning. Now I know what I wish I had said.

“Life imitates art? Really? You promise??” I am so lucky that he was right.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2013 in 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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