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Monday, 5 March 2012

Is Telepathy Possible?

“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “I know what you’re thinking.”

How often do we say such things? Especially if we really know someone well, or maybe if we don’t, but we know the situation and human behaviour and can ‘figure’ what the other person has in mind. But that’s not telepathy, right? That’s what most of you reading this are thinking...

I’ve noticed on some science fiction sites a clear distinction between those who accept telepathy in science fiction, and those who do not. The latter deem it implausible, which means there is no scientific basis for it, and so any scifi with telepathy would, to them, be at best fantasy, and at worst sheer rubbish.

But telepathy is an interesting premise. Science fiction is always asking “What if…?” For example: what if my partner/boss/sibling could read my thoughts? What would happen to society? And if we met aliens who could somehow read our thoughts, would they like what they saw, including revulsion at least in some of us at something non-human, as well as fear, because we would know they could see it? Would it bode well during a ‘first contact’ situation?
Unlikely.

My favourite science fiction exploration of telepathy was in the TV series Babylon Five. During one or two of the later seasons there were humans who had evolved with a basic level of telepathy. They were persecuted, seen as a hazard to society, but also used by a ruthless organisation called PsyCorp to try and fathom aliens’ real intentions. The series hinted at an eventual forthcoming war between telepaths and ‘normals’. Since the telepaths were vastly outnumbered, even armed with telepathy, they were likely to be extinguished. An evolutionary dead end...

But there are two fundamental questions not often addressed: how would it actually work, and how would a telepathic society function?

Saying that an alien or advanced human could see inside your mind or read your thoughts is simplistic, and belongs more to fantasy than science fiction. And yet we do often ‘know’ what someone is thinking. What we are actually doing is drawing on a wealth of information and experience. We are predicting; making an educated guess. We all give off little clues about our thoughts in our non-verbal behaviour – ask any poker player, they are always looking for ‘tells’ that could give away whether their opponent is bluffing or not. But mainly we either know someone really well, or we know the situation really well, or both. We’re not always right, and a vast amount of fiction plays on this, where a character believes something about a lover’s intentions, but is mistaken, and we, the reader, know the lover’s true thoughts and feelings, because the author has graciously stated them for us clearly in black and white on the written page (granting us ‘telepathy-by-proxy’).

It’s still not telepathy. But what is thought? At the end of the day, we have a brain, and there are millions of neurons, flashing electronic pulses in particular patterns every second. For decades scientists have been studying ‘brainwaves’ (electroencephalography, or EEG), trying to determine what underlies thought. At best, we can determine overall effects such as arousal, vigilance, etc. Such science is still in its infancy. But what if there was a hyper-intelligent alien who could sense electronic (neuronal) pulses, as well as pheromone responses and ‘galvanic skin response’, for example (I used the latter back in the ‘80s when a psychology under-grad, linking sweat response to fear and arousal reactions during driving scenarios). What if such an alien could also study how we behave, and begin to make correlations? In some senses it still isn’t telepathy, because it is based on inference, not direct ‘reading’ of thoughts, but to many practical purposes, the distinction starts to have less meaning. Such an alien, schooled in human behaviour and able to detect all our physiological responses, would ‘appear’ to be able to see our thoughts.

Notice I’m not proposing humans could do it, because I don’t think we have the right ‘kit’, the right senses, to bring it off. But what if an alien race evolved with such senses built-in, so they could ‘read’ each other, or had some form of ‘collective consciousness’? Then we go back to the next question: how would such a telepathic race function, what would their society look like?

Rather than being evil and manipulative, I think they could be the reverse, a race of pacifists. Why? Well, for a start, they couldn’t lie to each other. There would be no misunderstandings. There would be complete empathy. No wars. No weapons, because the other side (why would there be one?) would see it coming… There might be less passionate love affairs, certainly less adultery… They would be very trusting. And very vulnerable to other species … including us.

I had a go at exploring this in my short story The Sylvian Gambit (originally published in Andromeda Spaceways), wherein humanity meets such a race. How does it go? Let me put it this way: it isn’t a comedy.

In my third book in the Eden Trilogy, called Eden’s Revenge, I’m experimenting with the ‘inferential telepathy’ idea a little more, with several extremely advanced alien races who can predict our basic thought patterns (to them, we are like rats in a maze, and they can work out which route we’ll take to get our cheese). To some extent, so far, I’ve made light of it, imagining for example, how a conversation might run between a human and such creatures.

In the following extract, Pierre, a human, is having a ‘conversation’ with an advanced alien called a Tla Beth, who is an energy creature (the ‘Ice Pick’ referred to below is the name of Pierre’s semi-intelligent space ship). Both the Tla Beth and Pierre are trying to find the almost-extinct mythical race called Kalarash, of which there are only two known to still exist…

Abruptly the transmissions stopped. The Tla Beth’s upper half was almost black, a single white dot in its centre. It spoke to Pierre in a flawless English accent.
"We have located one of the Benefactors, a Kalarash.”
Pierre knew better than to ask where; undoubtedly the information had already been uploaded into the Ice Pick’s nav-mind. The Tla Beth answered his next questions before Pierre had finished forming them.
“The second one. The Tla Beth and Kalarash have an uneasy relationship. Yes.”
Pierre tried to catch up fast, reverse-engineering his questions. The one that left the galaxy, or its mate, who was still somewhere inside the galaxy? [The second one]. Next. Why send us, why don’t you go find the Kalarash? [The Tla Beth and Kalarash have an uneasy relationship]. Next. Is it because of what happened to the Level Eighteen race? [Yes].


The key word in the extract above is ‘before’: the Tla Beth (a ‘Level Seventeen’ race – humans are Level Four) answered Pierre’s questions before he’d finished thinking them. This is therefore highly advanced prediction, based on the context and the Tla Beth’s knowledge of Pierre’s thinking patterns. Again, not strictly telepathy, but close enough, and it makes for interesting ‘dialogue’.

Telepathy isn’t going to feature large in my book, largely because I also find it not that plausible, except perhaps within a single alien race who might have evolved that way, but also because in a science fiction thriller, telepathy can be a real ‘tension-killer’. That’s why I have another character, Ukrull, who is closest to being actually telepathic, and is the quietest, most taciturn personality in the entire series. If he was a blabbermouth, it would stop the reader turning pages, because although we authors let readers experience telepathy by inviting them inside characters’ heads, we can’t afford to let readers see too much. In fact, if one day humanity suddenly became telepathic, I reckon most authors would be out of a job!

The Eden Trilogy is a science fiction series based on a single premise: what if we’re not the smartest kids on the block? In The Eden Paradox we first encounter an alien race, and it doesn’t go well. In Eden’s Trial, we discover that there is a vast alien society elsewhere in the galaxy, with most races far more advanced than us, and humanity struggles to survive. In Eden’s Revenge, the finale, there is a galactic war, and, despite our galactic short-comings, humanity plays a pivotal role, and the future of the entire galaxy will hinge on one man’s decision…

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback (Amazon, Waterstones) and Ebook (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, OmniLit, Ampichellis). Eden’s Trial is currently only available on Amazon Kindle, but will be released in paperback later in 2012. Eden’s Revenge is in progress, due out as an Ebook end of 2012, paperback 2013. For the Sylvian Gambit and related (free) stories, see ‘Stories’ on this website. http://www.barrykirwan.com/.

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