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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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“Sense8” and “What’s Up?”

“You’ve got to watch this show. It’s just like your books!”

Heroes-Original-CastThe first time this happened it was Heroes, which premiered in 2007, when the novel I had been toying with in my head for 20 years was starting to take shape. I’m the one who saw the loose connection with what I was trying to do as I watched this show about otherwise normal people with superpowers who were learning to cope with what they could do while learning to work together.

Maybe I should give up now? I thought. “But no. The popularity of this show means people like this kind of stuff. Maybe it means I need to start writing.” So I did.

Kiefer-Sutherland-Touch-Season-2-Cast-Photo-1024x576The next time it happened it was “Touch”, which premiered January 2012, less than a month before I released x0 on kindle. My daughter, who had already read x0 and a draft of y1, alerted me after she saw the show. “Mom, it is so much like what you are trying to say. I guess it was, kind of, and kind of not.

It turns out that I liked “Touch” even better than “Heroes”. It was a little more metaphysical, a little less about cool but unbelievable super powers. No flying, that sort of thing. To be honest I was proud that my daughter thought my ideas were in the same ball park. I saw every episode and was sad to see “Touch” go off the air in 2013.

Then last fall my son gave me the news.  “There is this new show on Netflix and you’ve got to see it, Mom.  It is so much like your books.” By this point he had read all five of them and I admit that I drug my feet on this last one. What if he was right and this story line was finally going to be the one that was too close to my own?

sense8We got Netflix up and running on the new TV and settled into to watch episode one of “Sense8”. Once again, it was an intriguing metaphysical superpower story about the connections between all of us. I loved it, even more than I had loved “Touch” which I had loved even more than “Heroes”. Yes, yes it kind of was what I was trying to say but of course it kind of wasn’t too and of course it said it with completely different characters and story lines. I was coming to understand that my great themes were not exactly new and they could be told afresh many times and many ways, and the telling by others didn’t diminish my own message which would always be subtly my own.

And then I saw episode 4. If I had to pick one thing that will always and forever make me think of x0, it is “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes. I’ve loved this song since it came out in 1993, and as a new writer I wanted so badly to reference some of the lyrics in my book while I was writing about troubles in Nigeria and how they appeared to Lola in the U.S.

“No problem,” some people told me “Just use the lyrics.”

“Don’t even think of using them,” others warned.

4 Non-Blondes: click for official video

I took the upright but truly naive approach of contacting the owners of the rights of the song. I was lucky, Sony/ATV Music Publishing owned all the rights. For two months in 2011 I negotiated with a wonderful Licensing Analyst named Lacey Chemsak who must have thought I was crazy as I haggled over fees and number of copies like I was negotiating an arms deal. In the end I paid Sony $200 to the use the text you will see at the end of this post. Was it worth it?

Logically no. Of course not. But we don’t live in a logical universe, do we? You see, on came episode 4 of Sense8, with the scene below. I stood up, surprised at hearing “my song” in this series. Then I stated to sing along and for one moment the interconnectedness of me and the Wachowskis and 4 Non Blondes and all the other people who see the interconnectedness of things and all the characters in Sense8 and those in my books and hell everybody in the whole world came together in my head, and tears ran down my face and it was better than being drunk or high or even having an orgasm because this was so fucking incredible and I couldn’t stop singing or crying.

“Look at you,” my husband said laughing because he didn’t know what else to say and then he looked at me again and didn’t say anything and just let me be.

The song finally ended and I wiped away my tears and felt kind of silly. It didn’t matter. My newly discovered connection to “What’s Up” and “Sense8” had been the best $200 I ever spent.

Enjoy “What’s Up” as it appears in the show.

Here is the excerpt from  x0:

Lola’s coworkers did not discuss Nigerian politics with her much in the office unless Lola specifically brought something up, so it wasn’t until late in October when Lola was doing a lunchtime internet browse that she came across a BBC article from early October titled “Will amnesty bring peace to Niger Delta?”

Amnesty? That sounded hopeful. As she started to read, Bob walked by, singing in his head one of the many great oldies he had managed to amass on his iPod. Where did the man find so many good old songs?

What’s Up?” had been the 4 Non Blondes’ 1993 hit, coming out the year that Ariel was four. Lola loved it, and the two of them had sung, actually, screamed it together whenever it came on the radio when Lola was driving little Ariel to preschool.

In her BBC article, Ms. Duffield described talking to taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and hotel clerks in the Niger Delta region who were all hoping for peace as they watched militants hold disarmament ceremonies which involved relinquishing guns, rocket-propelled grenades, explosives, ammunition, and gunboats. Gunboats??

And so I wake in the morning and I step outside And I take a deep breath and I get real high / And I scream at the top of my lungs / What’s going on?

The BBC article added that while no one appeared to have given up their entire arsenal, the quantity of weapons released, presumably for cash, was significant. Concerns had been raised that no independent monitors were tracking what was being done with the weapons, and this caused worry because in the past, corrupt officials had sold confiscated guns, which had then made their way back into the hands of a wide variety of criminals.

And I try / oh my god do I try / I try all the time, in this institution.

The article noted that another major obstacle to peace was that there were now thousands of young men in the region effectively unemployed, given that their previous full-time profession had been guerilla fighter. Their resumes included kidnapping, blowing up oil pipelines, and stealing massive amounts of crude oil.

And I pray / Oh my god do I pray / I pray every single day for a revolution.

The government plan, according to the article, was to retrain these young men in new skills. It noted that they were already being processed at centers where they were being asked about their other career interests. Other career interests??

The BBC said that retraining would be a daunting prospect, and that in the case of failure, the young men would likely return to their previous activities.

And I realized quickly when I knew I should / That the world was made up of this brotherhood of man / For whatever that means …

She looked at the photo of the giant pile of automatic weapons. Seriously, right now in Nigeria there were actually thousands of angry young men filling out employment questionnaires??

Twenty-five years and my life is still / Trying to get up that great big hill / Of hope … for a destination.

Finally, enjoy this well done review of Sense8.

 

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2016 in music for peace, Nigeria, oneness, writing

 

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