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.

 

There is no dark side of the moon

I’ve always had an interest in astronomy, and I tend to correct people when tides, eclipses and locations of planets are described in a way that is just plain wrong. Mess with your facts in a science fiction story or show, and I’ll tell anyone who will listen. But somehow, Pink Floyd made my list of exceptions. It’s probably because I’ve loved their music for decades, and no album better than “The Dark Side of the Moon.” I’ve always been happy to allow them poetic license with this phrase.

Moon and VenusBecause the moon turns slowly, it’s days are about 28 days long. It also takes the moon about 28 days to go around the earth, so it always faces the same side toward us.There is a far side to the moon, one we can only see from spacecraft we’ve sent. It is mysterious and hidden. But it’s not the dark side.

It is true that at any given time roughly half the moon is illuminated by the sun, and half is not. You could call the part that is not “the dark side” I suppose but it is not really a side, it’s the part of the moon that is experiencing night. If you simply look at a crescent moon from earth, you could call the part that doesn’t glow “the dark side” but its not really a side either.

Anyway, if doesn’t matter. “The Dark Side of the Moon” conveys something deep and hidden and mysterious and I am willing to leave it at that.

I share a few things in common with my hero Lola, including that fact that we both once lost a bet that there was a song named “The Dark Side of the Moon.”  The song of course is titled Brain Damage and it is the first song that Lola hears after she becomes a full fledged telepath. The lyrics cause her to reconsider telling friends and family about her new abilities.

Enjoy reading about “Brain Damage” in this short excerpt from x0.

By the time she had made it to frozen foods, every person in the store had a song to sing. A story to tell. The vague and sometimes annoying feelings she had picked up from folks in the past were gone, and Lola felt like a person with horrible vision who had just been given a pair of good glasses or a person with very poor hearing who suddenly was wearing the best of hearing aids.

It was true that most of what was coming at her was boring. His feet hurt. She was annoyed with her child. He was annoyed he had to work today. Right. He was missing the football game. Lola laughed. People were preoccupied, tired, worried, looking forward to some later event, thinking about sex, and one guy in aisle seven was thinking seriously about beating the shit out of someone at work tomorrow. Lola, knowing that most thoughts don’t result in actions, decided that without more evidence of intent she should just leave people be. And she did. She could. She practiced. Tone up the intensity. Tone down the intensity. That worked. She could do it.

Not all the thoughts were admirable, but amid the petty and the complaining Lola had to admit that there was an underlying hum of just wanting to love and be loved. To be left in peace. To have a little fun. To have worries solved and some joy at the end of the day. She figured she shared the grocery store that day with forty or so other souls, and she could honestly wish each one well and move on. It was all going to be okay.

http://www.pinkfloyd.com/store.phpShe smiled instinctively at the checkout clerk as she finished, and felt the girl’s blip of joy at the smile. That was surprising. Lola’s smile, an unconscious reflex she often found annoying because it was so habitual, apparently sometimes brought other folks a bit of happiness. Interesting.

Then, just as she was leaving, some lady in produce started singing to herself. Wouldn’t you know it, Lola laughed. She had lost twenty dollars once betting that there was a Pink Floyd song called the “Dark Side of the Moon.” There isn’t, of course, just a 1973 album with that name, and a perfectly wonderful song called “Brain Damage” which talks about a lunatic inside the singer’s head and mentions the dark side of moon.

As Lola listened to the eerie lyrics, she decided they were a little too close to the mark. Probably time to get home and take a break. As she headed out of the store, she couldn’t help singing along.

Driving home, she gave some thought to her next obvious problem. It looked like Jumoke had been right. Thanks to some combination of the Igbo woman and the canoe incident, she had become a telepath. Why had it taken so long? Maybe for the last couple of months the PTSD, or maybe the medication, or maybe both, had suppressed her symptoms. No, abilities, she told herself. This is not a disease. You have abilities, not symptoms.

At any rate, if this was now the way she was, should she tell Alex? Her children? Her sister? In one sense it seemed only fair, but in another she doubted she’d be believed, no matter how much they loved and trusted her. That was until she demonstrated the truth of what she was saying, which now that she thought about it could be harder than she thought. She could not do card tricks. Tell me what I’m thinking. What she could do was pick up the real driving emotion they were feeling at the time and if she was lucky it looked like she could pick up a few facts related to that emotion as well. Which meant that she would probably just pick up disbelief. And worry. And maybe a little fear because whether she was telepathic or not, the fact that she thought she was meant there was something to be concerned about one way or another. Pointing out the presence of these emotions was hardly going to constitute compelling evidence to any of the fine folks in her immediate circle.

So what was the hurry? First, she should probably learn more about this and how it affected her and her life. The lyrics to Brain Damage kept playing in her head. It was true. Having people think that one is crazy seldom ends well.

I don’t usually go for “fan-made” videos with the lyrics, but I was fascinated by this fan’s recording of a live performance of Pink Floyd with assorted images and the lyrics to “Brain Damage” superimposed on the concert footage. It’s creative, and eerie.  Enjoy!

Buy the song at Amazon.com.  Read the lyrics.  Hear, buy and read about the song at the Pink Floyd webpage.

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.