This episode is brought to you by Brilliant. For Christmas I got my friend one of those step counters to wear, but it's telepathic instead of bluetooth, because it’s the thought that counts. So it’s another Scifi Sunday here on Science & Futurism with Isaac Arthur, where we explore concepts out of science fiction and ask if they can be science fact or how we might be able to pull off something very similar under known science. And today’s topic is telepathy, an absolute staple of science fiction in the 20th century. Now it's hardly absent from modern scifi either but I think psychic abilities in general seemed much more plausible to folks before we started having both complex computers and powerful brain scanners that gave us a clearer picture of how thinking worked and how hard natural telepathy would be, much akin as we learned that there’s a long step between powerful computers and intelligent androids. Now for today’s purpose I am going to be working from the standpoint that ESP, telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, retrocognition, pyrokinesis, and a host of other psychic abilities are entirely fictional or fraudulent but I will add from the outset that this could be wrong.
We will discuss some of the evidence for it, and try to do so fairly, but evidence for psychic abilities is at best limited while open confessions of fraud and common sense counterevidence is very abundant. What do I mean by that comment “Common Sense Counter Evidence”? The precognition example is why the person able to see the future hasn’t won the lottery or made a killing on the stock market, in favor of doing fortune telling in person or even by phone. This is what we often bring up in our Alien Civilizations and Fermi Paradox series where a given chain of reasoning for the behavior of an alien civilization just skips over some seemingly obvious and massively beneficial alternate path. One example would be abducting humans to collect DNA from them when robbing graves, or lifting it off skin cells left on coins, letters, or garbage would seem vastly easier. As an example of simultaneous alien and paranormal cases, I was once given the case of an alien speaking through a medium, in a similar case to someone in the afterlife speaking through one, and told that this was their means of interstellar faster than light communication, they telepathically reached out and spoke through a distant host.
When asked how this could be validated the answer was the obvious, report the occurrence of a supernova whose light you have seen that has not yet reached us but will shortly. And such a thing is easily calculable and any species at our level or higher should have no problem fulfilling this request inside a few days given that the Open Supernova Catalog seems to add a new dozen candidate Supernovae every day or two. Now that only really works for the specific cases like a medium where you are able to ask questions of someone who should have the answer, someone getting random flashes of the future might get random images of spacetime from all over the galaxy and trying to construct a historical narrative from that is going to be pretty hard compared to even doing something like taking a thousand random pictures from social media in the last decade and assembling an idea of world events from them.
Stories often feature this sort of random precognition and very appropriately show all the ways knowledge of the future without clear context can make you jump to bad conclusions. So we don’t casually accuse people of fraud for making claims like that, of just thinking they’re getting random snapshots of the future or similar, but any service they offer for which they want to receive money or influence should be easily testable. If a person can see what card someone else is holding, either by remote viewing or telepathic mind reading, then they should have made a killing at playing cards in Vegas and while an individual might claim they think that is cheating and wouldn’t do it, or have done it but won’t admit to it less the casino come to demand their money back, it would seem unlikely we wouldn’t have found at least one person who had these abilities and gotten rich that way and been caught in the act or confessed later. I will also add that examples of police or intelligence agencies employing psychics or mind-readers is not even vaguely positive evidence. First, we had tons of honest to goodness respected scientists who believed in psychic abilities back in the day, so non-scientists thinking it works is hardly a surprise just because they are a government agent, and second, of course our governments looked into, same for aliens and a ton of other things we were or are skeptical of. We’re thorough, and we operate by consensus a lot, and that means if a team of 10 people has 8 who think psychic abilities is bunk, 1 who is on the fence, and 1 who is a believer, we go ahead and check into it anyway.
Two other caveats though for fellow skeptics, on this and other matters. First, when it comes to the paranormal or supernatural it is important to remember that science is the study of the natural universe, the supernatural by definition isn’t included in that, and we start with a deductive bias of assuming any phenomena will be of a natural kind, which slants us against things outside of the natural or even just outside our known natural phenomena and functions. I don’t think we have a lot of alternatives but we can’t magically wave that away, and it is flat out unscientific to say that science will answer any question we currently do not have an answer for, that is a leap of faith justified by science’s fairly solid track record. Second, while I love Carl Sagan and consider him something of a personal inspiration for career and style, his popularization of the idea that “Extraordinary Claims require Extraordinary Evidence” also known as ECREE or the Sagan Standard, has caused that idea to be used way to casually in often the wrong way.
For one thing, we don’t get to decide how much evidence we get of any phenomena, and what we find ordinary or extraordinary is often subjective. Often what we mean by this is what it takes to prove something to others, so you’ll need more evidence to convince your boss you’re late to work because a UFO abducted you than if you just said you got a flat tire, because flat tires are a well known, common occurrence--not that that proves it was the reason you were late. The general notion there is that one option was mundane and easy to believe, and the other was neither, thus there’s a way lower threshold for convincing people that mundane event occurred.
However we should always keep in mind that 99 occasions of something happening in some fashion doesn’t mean number 100 did too, nor that if 99 claims of something have been debunked or proven lies that incident 100 will be too. Which in regular terms means that skeptical is not the same as cynical or being a jerk, and as tempting as it is to roll your eyes at new claims of the paranormal or a perpetual motion machine or what have you, you should not because a lot of science has been on the backs of highly unbelievable things turning out to be true. On the other side of that coin, asserting something and assuming it’s true unless you’re shown proof it's wrong is bad logic.
I get photos of strange lights in the sky from folks all the time, and I have no idea what they are, mundane object or UFO, and so I haven’t ‘debunked’ their claim, but they haven’t ‘bunked it’ yet either, so to speak. If you’re making a claim of the paranormal or a perpetual motion machine, the burden really is on you to give a polite and well-laid out proof at least, with proper details and presentation. At the same time we probably want to be careful to keep some humility about what the sciences have proven and toward claims that seem at odds with it.
And to return to telepathy, the simple answer is that virtually all the experiments and evidence done on it and other related extrasensory and psychic phenomena involved experimental methods or data that leaked like a sieve. However there was a ton of such paranormal data and it basically got blasted out to everywhere in popular culture. We see similar with a lot of modern phenomena too and repetition tends to lend credibility to ideas, even though we all know it should not.
But again with telepathy it really wasn’t viewed as terribly wacky. There’s a March 1933 article on Testing for Telepathy from E.E. Free, Ph.D. that was in Scientific American that is just one of many examples of it showing up in a popular and credible format and that was fully fifty years after the term Telepathy was coined by Frederic Myers, one of the Founders of SPR – the Society for Psychical Research, of which the aforementioned Dr. Free was part. This year marks the 140th anniversary of the SPR’s founding in 1882 and in all that time the SPR’s vigorous studies of parapsychology has not resulted in them, as a group, being willing to make any assertion of proof when it comes to telepathy, mediums, apparitions, ghosts, or a ton of other phenomena. They have exposed a lot of fraud down the years too and please don’t get the impression this is a pro-phenomena group.
Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, resigned from the SPR because he thought they required an overly restrictive standard of proof. So, essentially, Sherlock Holmes thought their standards of evidence were too high. Regardless, one of the key things mentioned in Dr. Free’s article is the general assumption that if telepathy or similar are real, then this trait should be universal in humans even if very modest. This line of reasoning is something we see in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels – in which there are telepaths – by asserting it was a trainable skill in everyone, and this notion is very common in science fiction of that period.
It admits to certain biological issues though. First, our studies of the brain weren’t finding any organ or bit of the brain that seemed to be sensitive to external brain signals or emit any sort of signal we could decode as thought, and that becomes a much stronger argument against as we get into the modern era of advance computing, MRIs, and signal decoding. Second, it is hard to imagine what evolutionary purpose many of these abilities would have served. It isn’t that hard to imagine a value to an organ allowing us to speak mentally, the existence of ears and vocal cords seem to support that, the problems is I don’t need a special organ for that when I already have those.
I don’t need telekinesis when I can use my mind to control my hands and feet to walk over and move an object. And we now have a much better idea how insanely difficult it would be to create a genuine real time mind-reader, so the effort to duplicate something we already have from a practical standpoint seems implausible, and also that it should be something dormant we are not aware of. I know my hands and ears and eyes exist, if I didn’t, if I couldn’t use them, then they would represent ridiculous expensive objects serving no purpose, a big no-no in evolution. It’s also hard to see how early limited forms of these could develop, when we already have eyes and ears and mouth and hands, into an evolutionarily useful progression of weak to better. Now this isn’t universal. Precognition is an obvious advantage, indeed our brains are very heavily setup to engage in predictive simulation with that in mind.
Though as Frank Herbert demonstrates in his later Dune novels, one very obvious adaptation evolution might come up with is blurring someone from other people’s precognition. Dune is one of many examples of psychic abilities in fiction, much like the Foundation, and those two series are usually considered the #1 and #2 scifi book series of all time on most lists I’ve seen, number 3 is often listed as the Ender’s Game series, which features a telepathic alien hive mind. I’d say that more than half of the classic scifi book series do have them too, and even higher in popular scifi TV series – I’m not sure if I can think of a single scifi TV series produced during the 20th century that had more than a single season and didn’t have telepathy or similar in it.
I think there’s also some wishful thinking in there too. I have it on fairly good authority that Asimov and Clarke and a lot of the other greats from the 1960s genuinely believed that we were doomed to nuclear apocalypse and only some sort of telepathic hive mind being developed could prevent that and certainly that’s an option that shows up in a lot of works, like Asimov’s Foundation Series and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. If you think the world is doomed without telepathy, maybe it makes it just a bit easier to believe the phenomena might already be present. Incidentally this does not mean any of them believed in current human telepathy, some openly did, but some vocally did not, and some probably were thinking of it as an evolved superhuman trait or something engineered like technological telepathy that we’ll come back to in a bit. However, we should keep in mind that a lot of folks believed in hive minds with telepathy of some sort as a very real thing at that time and it did often seem the logical explanation for things like ant colonies and beehives. That they used some sort of signaling method we just missed, natural but unknown or even mundane but weak like radio.
It turns out they did communicate invisibly, it just turned out to be by chemicals we termed to be pheromones in 1959 and our knowledge of them was really very limited for a long time, indeed they are still pretty mysterious. Unlocking those may have vast agricultural, ecological, and economical benefits. I mentioned the Sagan Doctrine earlier, which many translate as, when it comes to scientific explanations, keep it simple first.
The easy claims, the simple ones, should be investigated first and have lower standards of evidence. That point can be debated but it tends to ring true on telepathy, and again it's only as we have seen the sheer complexity of brains through greater study and technology while finding other existing methods of communication that we can really say that telepathy is not simple. Before that, it really made a lot of sense to assume we could sometimes read each other’s mind. We can, humans are amazingly good at interpreting all sorts of indicators in each other’s behavior and physiology. It’s just we did it as something we learned as little kids, getting the basics methods down at ages we often do not remember, so that the method is often entirely subconscious. When we’re little babies we learn all sorts of very simple communications, sending and receiving, and we keep doing a lot of them through our lifetimes so that they often show up even when we are being intentionally dishonest.
Now consider that in the context of something like Twin Telepathy, a very popular notion throughout human history in one form or another, and one I’ve even heard suggested as a byproduct of Quantum Mechanics. Now Quantum get’s hijacked for a lot of quackery but one principle in there is the spooky action at distance notion implied by quantum entanglement of particle pairs, or twinned particles, so to speak, and the usual reasoning is that twins often do have private languages, including body language, but it doesn’t operate at a distance, yet seemed more common in twins than in other friends or relatives. This particular version of telepathy, sometimes called Clairsentience or a Mind Link, is often thought to work better for twins. Common examples would be one twin burning their hand and the other twin feeling it a thousand miles away at the same moment without a telephone, especially when it's severe or intense. Needless to say proof of that is hard to obtain, with the severity qualifier, obviously it's very easy to poke twins to see if the other felt it and this has been done tons of times with no good evidence it's true. It’s also fairly parallel as a concept to a wizard’s familiar who are animals the wizard keeps as a pet and can see or hear through the eyes of as a scout or spy or messenger.
This is a very simple example of something technology can make come true. We could presumably do this today with any dog trained to seeing-eye dog levels and given a power supply for a phone, camera, and mic, like some modern version of the St Bernard’s cask. Wiring that in as BCI – brain-computer-interfaces – is obviously a higher level of tech but one we’ve made a ton of progress in. Similarly, something like remote-viewing no longer seem as awesome when you can control a distant camera by remote on your phone and pick that up at the store for thirty bucks. We have a lot of technology readily available at our fingertips that makes such options less arcane and more mundane, while also giving us a much clearer picture how difficult the invention actually was for evolution to try to tackle. And again, to try to tackle without it being obvious.
We know about our hands and eyes and ears and such, we use them, we know all of our classic five senses – hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch – but we seem unaware of any sixth sense. But looking for one isn’t wrong, and indeed these days we think the number is more like 18, not 5, so the hunt itself wasn’t wrong even if its target was off. These extra senses aren’t really very arcane either, three are Itch, Pain, and Thermoception – our sense of itchiness, pain, or hot and cold turn out to be distinct from touch in general, same for muscle tension, and awareness of your body part locations.
We appear to be magnetically sensitive in a very limited way but have documented it strongly in many birds and other critters. Indeed such magnetic sensitivity was sometimes suspected as the natural means of telepathy, based on early encephalograph technology and partially vindicated by MRI brain scanners, or Magnetic Resonance Imaging. Some are arcane mostly in concept, like we have a sense of time, which I remember rolling my eyes at the first time I heard it phrased as a sense like the big 5 but on reflection was more of a ‘Oh, yeah that would be something we really would need built in at a cellular and nervous level’ and obviously shows up in things like circadian rhythms.
And again, in all of that it shouldn’t seem so strange we would have an unknown sixth sense, even if it would need to be labeled 19 or 20 at this point. Though I would use it instead as a reason why we shouldn’t look down our noises at all the folks who give it plausibility, especially in the past. More importantly though, at least for this show, it seems strongly indicated to be part of our future. Now it is quite possible we may develop machines, or genetically engineer organs even, that are capable of scanning brains more accurately than a modern MRI, and at a distance too. This is not too concerning because it is unlikely to happen in a vacuum and is easily countered. Yes a tinfoil hat can indeed screw with such a brain scan method and it would seem almost inevitable that any device capable of reading brains would be based on a technology that could more easily scramble or interfere with the signals.
Needless to say, it also requires huge computing power to interpret any of those images and signals into an actual thought and probably long study of that specific human’s brain while observing their interactions with their environment too, individual human brains are pretty unique in terms of their software or wetware. However, I wouldn’t view either of those as major hurdles we wouldn’t be able to overcome, it just means you aren’t likely to ever see a brain scanner you could buy, plug in at home or carry in your pocket, and instantly use to scan random strangers thoughts. I should also note that while a lot of us do a lot of our thinking in words and phrases, if you have ever stopped to pay attention to what you were mentally speaking to yourself it's often pretty jumbled and abridged and way past what we tend to see from folks mumbling or talking to themselves which usually is pretty far from conversationally clear. I sometimes forget to pause the recording when I stop mid-script to handle something and it’s a very good mic so it can pick up my mutters and its usually borderline incomprehensible even by my mumbly, speech-impediment standards.
There’s a bit I deleted from our last episode’s script recordings which has me stopping for a few moments and muttering “Need wife pen” followed by a growl. As best I can tell this represented a summation of me thinking of a birthday gift for my wife, wanting to jot it down before I forgot then get back to recording, and complaining that this same wife has a habit of borrowing pens off my desk so I couldn’t find one. I don’t know if we use the exact same bits for mental thinking as sending words to our vocal cords. I just tried thinking words while saying something else for a couple minutes and failed everytime, which proves nothing, maybe you can, maybe I could with more practice, but I should rather expect that even if we could decode the signals connected with us mentally speaking, we would find them about as revealing and informative as my three word frustrated growl about pens and gifts.
I’d also bet on those being the easier brain signals to decode coherently. Telepathic mind-reading and telepathic message sending tend to almost always be paired up in scifi, but I think that too is from that early and overly simplistic perspective from our limited understanding of the mind back in the 20th century. It is much easier to imagine creatures developing an alternative communication method using some other sense than an actual brain reader, again we have apparently got at least 18 senses and many could provide one or more means of communication.
Though given that pain is apparently one of them, its rather terrifying to imagine that evolving as a communication means. Admittedly it is plausible enough, especially as a general concept rather than strictly in terms of terrestrial biology. Some critter develops a method of emitting a signal that stimulates pain receptors and can either use that to scare predators or rivals off, or to stun potential prey, and overtime they develop a refined whisper version akin to needle pinpricks that they can talk with. So when landing on an alien world, don’t rule out the possibility they might have some unconventional but painful ways of saying hello. Though the habit of encountering aliens who can instantly read our minds right after encountering us is at least as absurd as deciphering their language or vice-versa from a few minutes of speech. They, and a future humanity, might very easily have technological telepathy equivalents of radio or just brain implants and BCI wiring us directly not the internet, but that’s not going to make for a fast connection and translation so the systems – or brains – can easily chat, in spite of being alien.
I also would not expect any species to be unaware of how their brains send info and the ways that can be monitored or recorded, and it wouldn’t be surprising for everyone to have scramblers and shields on their person against spying even while they had antenna and receivers specifically for communication how and when they wanted. This is the big one, either as some evolved, genetically engineered, or technological pathway, telepathy is not likely to be useful for spying or ever result in casually allowing folks to share thoughts without privacy, which seemed often to be considered one of its selling points in a lot of scifi, no more lies or hiding, though in other works is seen as the ultimate tyrannic police state. Cultural views on such things might shift over time, and even cyclically, but I suspect the main purpose of technological telepathy in the future will be to let us more quickly and clearly share and interface words, images, or ideas as we wish to, not unintentionally, and likely with safeguards against accidental sharing at least as strong as safeguards against spying. So is there telepathy now? I don’t think so, it just seems like we would have more solid evidence for something so many have claimed and to which so many of us would hardly object to being true.
I am open to any strong evidence to the contrary but if you’re claiming precognition, I will only accept that in the form of upcoming supernovae or winning lottery number, next week’s by preference. Will we have telepathy in the future though? Well, you don’t need to have precognition to know that a lot of these mind powers have some value, whether natural, mystical, or technological in origin, so I would bet telepathy will be coming to a brain near you. So it’s a new year now and we have a lot of episodes coming up for Early 2022 and we will get to those in just a moment, but first, odds are if you’re a fan of this show you’re a fan of learning and maybe your new year’s resolution was to put a bigger focus on learning. If so, today’s sponsor, Brilliant, is a great partner for that voyage and it does help to have one, as January 1st resolution’s often are February’s fading memories.
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the first 200 people will get 20% off Brilliant's annual premium subscription. So that will wrap us up for today but this Thursday we will be returning to the Civilizations at the End of Time Series for a look at the Big Rip, the cosmological model that might see the Universe torn to shreds trillions of times sooner than we normally expect things to end. After that we will explore the notion of using nuclear bombs to terraform Mars and other worlds.
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