A Penny for your Thoughts

October 30, 2014

Multiple Pages
A Penny for your Thoughts

Some boffins at Harvard University claim to have transmitted information from one person’s mind to another by telepathy.  Reading through the paper, I thought the content transmitted wasn’t very impressive—just the Spanish and Italian words for “hello”—but hey, baby steps.

Is telepathy a thing we should hope for?  I have mixed feelings, based on long acquaintance with the notion from an adolescence spent reading science fiction.

Telepathy was one of the staple themes in sci-fi of the Golden Age.  This isn’t much remembered now because telepathy is hard to dramatize on movie or TV screens, which is where the last couple of generations have gotten most of their sci-fi from.  Moviecus list “65 movies about telepathy,” but scanning through them, it seems that telepathy is a secondary plot device, not the main theme.

The printed page does better.  There have been some fine telepath novels.  In many, like John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids or A.E. van Vogt’s Slan, telepaths are a feared and hated minority.  Occasionally, as in Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, they are a majority, persecuting non-telepaths.  Most often they are just rare freaks who understand how very unpopular they’d be if their ability was discovered, and so they keep it secret.

“Most of our thoughts are garbage, or worse.”

The best telepath stories—Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human comes to mind—are of that last variety.  They cater to the common human fantasy of seeing oneself as special, possessed of extraordinary powers un-guessed at by the dumb majority:  Superman, Harry Potter, etc.

There have been good thriller novels on that theme.  One of the best was Eric Frank Russell’s Three to Conquer.  After some childhood traumas, the solitary telepath learns to hide his gift, until one day he encounters a normal-looking woman whose mind, he perceives when probing it, has been taken over by an alien life-form.  With all humanity at stake, he decides to offer his talents to the FBI.  There is a hilarious interview in which he tries to persuade a G-man that he can read minds.

He smiled at Pritchard and enquired, “How’s your body?”


Out of the other’s bafflement Harper extracted a clear and detailed picture of the body.  He said in helpful tones, “You have a fish-shaped birthmark on the inside of your left thigh.”

Actual telepaths, if there are any, must surely be misanthropes.  Most of our thoughts are garbage, or worse.

After reading that story about the Harvard researchers I went and walked my dog, monitoring my own thoughts as I walked.  Here they are, categorised:

Earworms.  I spend a lot of time playing tunes in my head.  Today it was that silly doctor song from The Millionairess, ignited I suppose by my having recently read something in the papers about Sophia Loren.

Body issues.  We all (I hope) have niggling persistent worries about our bodies.  With me lately it’s been nose hairs.  Mine are going through some kind of sensational growth spurt.  I catch myself in the mirror and see this long bright-gold hair curling down out of a nostril, like a walrus tusk.  It wasn’t there yesterday.  What’s going on here?

Staircase wit.  What I should have said to the guy who unhorsed me last night in a verbal joust.  Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

Fantasies.  The less said, the better.  A friend once confided to Dr. Johnson that he was troubled with “shocking impious thoughts.”  Replied the great moralist: “If I was to divide my life into three parts, two of them have been filled with such thoughts.”

And these are the mental processes of a high-IQ, well-educated, fairly well-socialized geezer.  Imagine the poor telepath stuck on a long plane journey next to Rachel Jeantel.

(In deference to the scholars, I’d better insert a cautionary note here in regard to monitoring one’s own thoughts.  Qualified, credentialed scientists have done careful studies on this, and self-monitoring turns out to be a dubious business.  “People are often dramatically mistaken about what they think they’re thinking”—Hurlburt and Heavey, “Exploring Inner Experience.”) 

It’s not all dreck, of course.  Probably dog-walking, and the attendant acts of canine hygiene, just encourage the lower kinds of thoughts.  At other times the quality is better:

Rehearsals.  There is some significant social encounter in your near future.  You will give a speech, confront your boss, attempt a seduction.  You think about how you’ll do it; you anticipate the pleasure of success, the misery of failure.

Planning.  The assembly of complicated structures—businesses, tree houses, meals—requires connected thought.  Right now I’m making a table for my kitchen, one that will fit precisely into an inconvenient corner.  An elegant and useful thing, that did not previously exist, will come into the world, in part via my powers of mentation (though in much larger part via the generous efforts of a friend skilled in cabinetry).  I think about what comes next, which piece fits where.

(Sorry, but this needs another cautionary note.  There is a metaphysical theory named epiphenomenalism which argues that while mental events are indeed real—a thing some philosophers deny—they don’t make anything happen.  All causation is material: our thoughts are just epiphenomena—useless by-products.  That’s easy enough to believe when I’m fretting about my nose hairs or savoring a revenge fantasy—I mean, really, what’s the point of that stuff?—but hard to swallow when you see the table you made.)

Smugness.  When I’ve finished my table, I shall think about it with satisfaction, which may tip over into smugness.  When we’ve done something well, there’s pleasure in thinking about how good it looks, sounds, reads, felt.

The telepath, if he exists, of course enjoys some great advantages.  Not-too-frequent trips to Las Vegas or Macau will relieve him of the need to work for a living. 

On the whole, though, I pity him.  “The mind is a drunken monkey,” the yogi told Adam Smith.  That’s mostly what the telepath is hearing all around him, all day long: the chittering of drunken monkeys.

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