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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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Back to Building a World of Telepaths

I’m finally picking up momentum on book six of the 46. Ascending collection. I can always tell because that is when I start to have fun writing the story. I work with a very loose outline, and discovering what it going to really happen in my book is, well, my idea of a good time.

This final book was always suppose to be about all five of the main characters introduced in the previous novels. I joked about writing five prequels and then the real story. I still think that is the way it is going to go, but so far I’m pretty immersed in the telepathy part.

x0 was about empathy and compassion and how sensing others thoughts and feelings would ultimately make for world peace. e5 introduces my first evil telepaths, and I am having too much fun devising what set of circumstances would lead a person to become less empathetic as they learn more of how others feel and think.

emI’m lucky to be close to someone who is in the process of getting her Master’s Degree in Social Work right now, and given my journalism schooling and penchant for writing, I’ve been called upon to proofread a few papers. I enjoy doing it, but can’t help gaining perspective as I read. I am learning more about the concept of privilege  — white, male, western, hetero, cis, wealthy, healthy, pretty, young — there are a lot of variations here — but the concept that I am ordained by God or nature to be better than you seems to hold the key to failing to care about you at all. Why wouldn’t a human who is certain of his (or her) greater importance be deaf to the pain of those lesser? Might they just find it annoying? I think it depends on exactly how superior these people think they are. Maybe if they had a superpower, like telepathy …..

This line of thought has also given me a new lens with which to view current events and with which to better understand history. My husband is reading a biography of Charles Darwin right now, in part because Darwin will also play a role in the book I am writing. He recently read about Darwin’s dismay at economists using his theory of natural selection  to support Thomas Robert Malthus’ economic theory. In a nutshell, Malthus postulated that human population would always grow to exceed the food supply and that the poor and the weak needed to be allowed to starve so that the stronger humans could thrive. It would be an understatement to describe the theory as controversial, but can’t you see vestiges of it in some current policies? 

I like books that make me think.  I like to write books that make me think. I’m glad that just because I make up worlds with superheroes in them doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a good look at humanity and a chance to wonder about what makes it tick.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2016 in empathy, writing

 

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“The Martian” and why do we like what we like?

oscarWhen the motion picture academy opted to nominate 8 movies for best picture a few years ago instead of five, I was delighted. I enjoy watching the lengthy spectacle every year for reasons I don’t understand, and it is always more fun if I’ve seen at least one of the movies. Or at least heard of one. Some years are better than others and often I develop a deep emotional attachment with a certain movie. Last year it was The Imitation Game, the only one I’d seen by March, but I loved it no less for its lack of competition in my mind. Okay — maybe it is not entirely healthy to get so wrapped up in which picture wins, but hey, I live in a culture where fans actually cry when their sports teams lose, so cut me some slack.

This year, I have another such favorite. Science Fiction fanatic that I am, it is not surprising that I am cheering on “The Martian”. However, I’ve seen not one but two of the movies on the list this year, and I liked the other as well. Tom Hanks’ quietly ethical insurance lawyer had me rooting for him, and left me wondering why I preferred “The Martian” to “Bridge of Spies.” It’s not a better movie really. So what gives?

marsIt’s back to the old empathy thing, I think. I don’t have a personal link with spies or lawyers or the history of the cold war, but the astronaut wannabe in me identified so much with the man left behind. I’ve lived in Houston, toured NASA, read countless things about manned missions to Mars as background for my own book d4. But it goes further than that.

I am in awe of Andy Weir, who wrote the well researched and highly accurate book about an astronaut stranded on Mars. He was a little known science fiction author, well, just like me. Word is that he got frustrated having his stories turned down by publishers, and that in 2011 he started posting chapters of “The Martian” to his website instead. How could I not love this guy? Of course I want his movie to win.

There is another odd link, one that might even be less obvious but stronger. I have used music in each of my five books, and spent a lot of time selecting the songs that my heroes would like and possibly turn to as they developed their super powers. I have this goofy attachment to all 54 songs. So I’m watching the end of “The Martian,” thankful that the author went ahead and let me have a feel good movie without the need to kill off a character or two, and then it started.

http://www.gloriagaynor.com/One of the most pivotal songs referred to in x0 is Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” I have listened to that song countless times in the past four years as I wrote, revised and blogged about my book. And there it was! Someone had the good sense to let the song run in its entirety all the through the credits and by the end I was squirming in my seat at what a perfect addition it was to the movie. In fact, I wondered why it wasn’t included in the body of the movie itself. Was it an editing choice by the director or a stipulation by the musician? Either way, the song clinched it for me. “The Martian” has got to win.

Which brings me to the topic of personal taste. My preferences are not about how well done an artistic endeavor is. I like to think that some amount of quality is needed for me to like something, but it’s more than that. It includes what I am familiar with, what I understand, and what I enjoy. I like movies about basically good people that end well. No, I didn’t enjoy the Sopranos or Breaking Bad. On the other hand, I wasn’t a huge fan of any Rocky movie and probably won’t see Creed because I also like stories about science and smart people and care very little about sports. I do like to be surprised (“Sixth Sense” was fun) but not jerked around so much I get lost. I don’t like the disgusting. You get the idea. It isn’t about quality, it’s about me. And I suspect that when you pick things you like, it’s about you.

Are you an action-loving Mad Max Fury Road type? History? Wilderness survival? Maybe you are rooting for The Revenant. I don’t think there is a right answer here. Academy members are supposed to weigh in on the objective merits, but we consumers get to like what we like. It’s an important rule for a writer to remember, when she’s on the other side and a reader is judging her creations. Take a breath. Don’t take it personally. Everyone gets to like what they like.

One thing I do like is this video of Gloria Gaynor singing “I Will Survive” superimposed with a clips of a a graceful yet vulnerable figure skater. If you are anything like me, it will have you standing up and yelling “Yes” by the end and possibly even twirling around yourself a few times while you belt out a “I Will Survive” or two along with Gloria. It makes me think of staying alive on Mars. It makes me believe that no matter how many bad reviews I get, I will survive as a writer. It makes me feel good.

And if your not anything like me? Well, that is fine too.

 

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2016 in empathy, music for peace, other authors, writing

 

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A mind traveling 16-year-old seeks her kidnapped friends.

My 4th novel is out on Kindle today! Please check out Teddie’s story here at Amazon and share it with others if you enjoy it.

c3 cover smallc3 Synopsis:

Teddie’s life as a sixteen year old hasn’t always been easy, but nothing has prepared her for the unexpected dangers she encounters as an exchange student in Darjeeling. A frightening world in which young girls are bartered and sold stretches its icy fingers into the beautiful resort town and touches her friends one by one.

Terrified, Teddie finds that her own mind develops a unique ability for locating her friends and that an ancient group of mind travelers is willing to train her to use her new skill to save these girls. It will require trust in ideas she barely believes, and more courage than has ever been expected of her. When it becomes clear that the alternative is her friends’ deaths and the unchecked growth of an evil crime lord’s empire, Teddie accepts the challenge and shows those guilty of unspeakable crimes just how powerful a young woman can be.

c3 is part of 46. Ascending, my collection of loosely interrelated novels about five very different family members who each discover that they can do the extraordinary when circumstances require it. I have designed these books to be read as stand alone stories or in any order.

If you enjoy c3, consider z2, the tale of Teddie’s father as he learns to use his ability to warp time to protect Teddie and her friends against a threat from a white supremacy movement at Teddie’s high school, available here. You may also enjoy y1, the story of Teddie’s brother Zane as he develops an odd ability to alter his appearance. You can get it here. Of course please check out x0, the subject of this blog and the story of Teddie’s telepathic mother as she finds herself the unlikely hero in a rescue mission in Nigeria.

c3 is out on on Kindle starting today (January 31, 2014). It will be available in paperback and in other electronic bookstores early this summer.

Also, check out my new blog for c3 here. Not only will I feature fun tidbits about the book and information about giveaways, but I will also be blogging about the struggles faced by real life young women the world over, and be telling stories of the true heroes amongst them.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2014 in my other novels, writing

 

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Writing about Superpowers

hippiepeace2I write speculative fiction, in a genre known as magical realism. In my worlds, fantasy-type things happen as part of normal reality and you, the reader, are hopefully convinced that neither magic nor yet-to-be-invented science are involved.

Each of my books concerns a character with a different superpower, and each time I have struggled to invent ways in which the power doesn’t work. It turns out that the abnormal abilities are fun, but it’s those limitations that make for a good story. In x0, my first protagonist discovers that she is a telepath. I could tell early on that if I let her powers go wild, by halfway through the book she’d pretty much run the world. That’s not much of a story.

One solution was to create villains with equal or greater powers, but this yielded a sort of comic book cosmos that wasn’t what I was after. I wanted a believable lady in a universe that looked like my own, in which she dealt with dangerous but real people. So, she could read minds, but obviously not easily or at a distance or all of the time.

In my second book, y1, my main character is a real life shape shifter. Once again, if he could turn himself into anything and he had even a little imagination, he ought to be in charge of everything before the plot really gets going. Luckily, I developed his powers as being rooted in his amazing fine muscle control and certain chameleon-like color alteration abilities. That left him limited by his hair, his clothes and his approximate size. No turning into wolves or refrigerators or flies on the wall for him. His limitations helped me craft a plot that involved the fanciful but didn’t spin out of control before it even got started.

My hero in z2 can slow down the passage of time to the point where it almost stands still. Once again I was challenged to limit his capabilities. He begins the book thinking that his unique talent only shows itself when he is playing sports. As he finds himself in a variety of physical emergencies, he figures out that he is more versatile than he realized. Fortunately it takes him to the end of the novel before he learns to dependably control and use this power. This lack of knowledge about how and when his superpower can be called upon allowed him to occasionally save the day without becoming too powerful.

I am now finishing up final edits on c3, and beginning my fifth book d4 and both introduce new superpowers developed in the other family members. I’m enjoying playing with these new plot lines, and working my hardest to keep my remaining super people from becoming entirely too invincible. I want them to ultimately save the day, but not until they  have had adventures that my readers will enjoy.

Thanks to Hippie Peace Freaks for the wise saying.  Please like their Facebook page.

(Note: I originally wrote this as part of a blog tour with Orangberry Book Tours and this content has appeared at Bunny’s Review, Me, You & Books, High Class Books, Reading the Dream Life and at Imagination in Books. )

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2014 in telepathy, writing

 

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