Speculation: Writing and Telepathy

What effect would telepathy have on writing? Especially creative writing?

Seriously. One of the best descriptions I’ve read of why writers bang their heads against keyboards and kill trees (or at least seriously inconvenience electrons) is, that writers want to be understood.

How would telepathy change that?

One of the first things that comes to my mind is, what would be the limits of telepathy?

Distance is the first factor that comes to mind. If telepathy is pretty much touch-only, then writing might not be affected much at all. Any driven writer would still be trying to communicate with people they might never see or touch. OTOH, if we have a world like Anne McCaffrey’s Talents ‘verse, where it’s possible for telepaths to reach across the galaxy, we could potentially have situations where one telepath holds a “mass dream” like the Internet holds live concerts.

Another factor would be permanence. Is it possible to record telepathic impressions, so distant times and descendants can know what you tried to communicate? If so, then that might well be another kind of writing. If not – well, you can only juggle five to seven things in your head at once, people are going to want some way to write down a to-do list, and I firmly believe intelligent creativity that can write a list, can adapt that to write a story.

But there’s a third factor that strikes me about telepathy, that I’m not sure gets touched on enough. And that is, how well does telepathy actually communicate who you are?

Sure, you can read someone’s thoughts all day long. Does that actually tell you much, if you can’t see how someone acts on those thoughts – or not?

Let me posit two scenarios. First, think of the most mentally cantankerous person on the planet. Hates people, hates kids, even hates puppies and fluffy kitties. But if that cantankerous curmudgeon is a moral person, he never acts on those impulses of loathing. He just tries to get away from the things that bother him. Does telepathy show you the immoral thoughts, or the moral actions?

Second, and brr… think about villain headspace. One of the scariest things I find as a writer is considering the motivation of villains. Because a lot of the time, they don’t think what they are doing is wrong. So – for one nightmare example – does telepathy show a warm and fuzzy, “I love her so much, I never want her to leave”? Or does it show the psychopath strangling her to death?

…Brr.

I’m going to go think about puppies and kittens now. Or at least harried vampires and giggly Bride of Frankenstein types!

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39 thoughts on “Speculation: Writing and Telepathy

  1. If you take into account that The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Read, you’ve got even more problems.

    If one person is traumatized, and has night terrors, what’s to keep them from accidentally traumatizing someone else in their sleep via first person replays? Or imagine being next to someone who is dying, and mentally latching on to anything they can, in a attempt to stay alive?

    To further that last one, what if said dying person left an imprint of themselves practically burned into the victim’s psyche? Talk about multiple personality disorder…

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  2. One thing I noticed about a lot of stories on telepathy is how thoughts come through so clearly. This has always bothered me. When I listen to my own head, I have a lot of mumbling going on in the background (what Pema Chodron calls “thinking”). It’s a constant chatter. I would think actually listening to someone else’s mind would be extremely confusing because of that. Then there is also the problem of language. I’ve read discussions that posit that you can’t even think coherently without a language (as an aside, I’m not sure how you would go about testing this), but, if that is so, would you even be able to read the mind of someone if you didn’t know their language? There is a lot of problems with telepathy that tend to get glossed over in most stories. IMHO empathy makes a lot more sense. Most humans share a common set of emotions.

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    1. *Nod* There’s a lot of speculation out there about, is the human brain hardwired for language, and if so how did that happen? Which means if language is a necessary component, maybe telepathy wouldn’t be possible outside your species. Maybe not empathy, either….

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      1. And given that a large percentage of humans do not think in words, is language really hardwired into the human brain?

        I’m exploring this a bit with the rewrite of my first original fic – Search and Rescue. The two main characters are both telepaths who can at least sense what’s going on in someone’s conscious mind. One of them thinks in words; the other thinks visually. And what they get from people’s minds is translated to their method of thinking.

        Of course, the version of telepathy in that story/series is not word/language-dependant; it’s concept-dependant. So what they’re really sensing is the concepts in other people’s minds.

        (And there are a few other differences from “standard SF telepathy”, including the fact that you can’t just read people’s minds unconciously, you have to reach out to do it, and that with very few exceptions, two-way telepathic communcation is Not A Thing.)

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    2. Something I’ve thought of in the context of mind-reading rather than telepathy is defenses against it. Generally in stories you have something like envisioning a wall or building defenses somehow, but I’ve always thought the earworm defense would be much simpler. You know, when you have a song running through your head and you can’t get it out? You don’t stop thinking just because the song’s in your head, you just kind of have your train of thought and the song at the same time. So why not use that? Deliberately have a song going through your head all the time. Who’s to say the mind-reader/telepath won’t pick up Sweet Caroline or the Katamari Damacy theme or even an annoying advertising jingle, instead of the important thoughts you’re trying to shield? And even if your telepath can pick up both strands, wouldn’t it be jumbled enough that they might not get anything out of it?

      (I’ve mostly thought about this in the context of the Harry Potter books, to be honest, where the whole Occlumency thing drove me up the wall. Even setting aside the fact that Harry learning from Snape was a bad idea and the whole thing just seemed to weaken Harry’s mental defenses rather than strengthening them, is there seriously no way to defend against mind-reading other than this one apparently difficult spell that, it’s implied, you have to actively cast? What about passive defenses? What about if the mind-reading happens when you’re not prepared and can’t cast the spell in time or when you’re asleep or whatever?)

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  3. One thing on the what telepathy shows us of other people front, wouldn’t the telepathy also show you (in at least the curmudgeon’s case) the thought ‘so I’m going to do this’ or ‘gah, thing I hate, how do I POLITELY flee?’

    As for villains. I suspect that how villains are internally represented in a world with Telepathy would depend on the type of story. Tragic or creepy villains would be what you talked about above. Outright Evil to the point of almost cartoonishness would be two other kinds: those who don’t care about what their actions are doing to someone (either because their greater goal is ‘worth the price’ or because they just genuinely do not care about the suffering they inflict), and those who are like the curmudgeon and don’t have the internal morality or politeness to refrain from acting on those feelings.

    I imagine all these types would be present at all levels of fiction, but would be used in vastly different ways/for different points depending on the audience. (The Curmudgeon Villain and Just Don’t Care villain would be about why patience and empathy are important, especially in a kids program. While the strangler-type you mentioned would be about horror for adults and about how you need to examine your actions not just your feelings for kids.)

    On the main point of how this would affect creative writing: I do not know. If telepathic events can be maintained for future generations over vast distances, then writing may never been invented, or at least developmentally slowed way down. If one or the other of those aren’t the case then creative writing Will still happen because humans love to tell our stories. It’ll be different content-wise (different views of the world around us and entirely new vocabularies to descrive telepathic impressions), but still probably recognizable in broad strokes. I think what’s most important is that the telepathy – no matter how it functions of your listed examples – doesn’t stop or even stymy humaaan creativity. Much of writing and art is about sharing those ideas, and telepathy would be a new vehicle for that, but that wouldn’t stop the source of: ‘this is an idea I have, and I want to share it.’

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  4. More than just “what are the limits of Telepathy”, but “what are the mechanics of Telepathy” also comes into play. James H. Schmitz wrote a lot of stories with psionics of various sorts, including several different variants of telepathy, and the mechanics of the specific variants played into this as significant factors.
    From Telzey Amberdon, who’s telepathy worked kinda like radio/computer/etc, but also included translation (she had the high-end telepathy), so all “brain” energy was visible to her and could be messed with (including all the way up to literally rewiring another person’s brain and thus changing who and what they are), and with the translation feature letting her interpret what was going on in someone else’s brain as if it were her own thoughts. On the other end, there were ones that could only get impressions of emotions, or could only “hear” and “speak” and only to others of the same species.
    Timothy Zahn also dealt with the cultural factors you mentioned. In one of his short-stories, a spaceship from a human world torn by war encounters a spaceship from a hivemind race, and convinces them to help turn the humans into a hivemind too. It works for the spaceship crew, barely, because they’re already used to the cultural strictures necessary to survive constant total knowledge/feeling of everyone else in the group… but when they return to their world and distribute the retrovirus that turns people into a hivemind, it destroys that world because most of the civilians can’t handle it (and there’s more of them in the new mind).
    And Zenna Henderson also dealt with several variants of telepathy, and the potential problems involved in them. Another hive-mind variant in one of her short-stories has an interesting point: people (especially children) are prefer to take the easy way out. If they can just look to the hive mind for answers to their problems, are they going to bother learning how to solve the problems themselves? So what happens when the older generation dies, and no one in the younger generation has bothered to actually learn math, biology, etc? On the other hand, she also had stories where a limited racial-memory was a thing, so you could remember what your ancestors knew, and if someone else needed that knowledge you could give it to them.

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    1. Also, there are speculations that hive-minds limits emotional connections – by making them too easy.

      Basically; let’s say that a telepathic society is perfectly aware of each others feeling at all times. Period.

      But we are not. So we have to tell each other, all the time. Tone of voice, choice of words, a thousand small touches, boby language opening up, smiling, widening our irises, and so on, and so forth…

      And when we are told, we suddenly know two things; this person loves me (eros/filios/agape/whatever) *and*she*wants*me*to*know*it*.

      So the love grows.

      Hives’ do not. It just is.

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  5. Mercedes Lackey is the queen of mind-magic. Her first trilogy, Arrows of the Queen, Arrow’s Flight, and Arrow’s Fall, follows the life of a young and powerful empath. She specifically stated in an interview that she wanted to do something different from the regular magical fantasy genre. And, boy, did she. The best example of the cons associated with mind-magic is in the examples of Tylendel and Vanyel from the Magic’s Price trilogy. Both boys get their magical and psychic gifts blasted open.

    I think the Velgarth universe mentions that most thoughts are a jumbled sound like bees or white-noise, but that anyone exposed to mind-magic users for any length of time learns to project their thoughts clearly. Privacy is also a thing with Heralds, so they usually form/build/maintain mental shields to keep out the extraneous noise.

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  6. Privacy might become a issue – remember how annoyed people get when you eavesdrop on their conversations?

    Also it might depend on how coherent the thoughts are – sometimes I don’t know what I’m thinking. Or you don’t really think, you just react.

    Also how many times have you been writing something, reading something, or watching something when something else distracts you or just randomly pops up in your head? Probably would break the audience’s enjoyment of this epic quest story if the person projecting it mind’s suddenly was like “I’m hungry, I wonder what are we having for dinner tonight?” or “The person over there is cute” or “Squirrel!”

    And how many artists are pleased enough with their first drafts to share them with the world?

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  7. If you haven’t played it, the first Mass Effect game has some interesting uses of telepathy in its main story threads, but the gameplay itself is a little dated by this point. I still highly recommend it.

    As for how telepathy could affect creative writing or entertainment, imagine a crowd attending a play put on by talented telepathic actors, each of whom are able to act out their character’s thoughts and emotions, sharing them with a crowd free to ‘latch onto’ a single actor at a time for the telepathy. Maybe the actors have run the play so long that they are able to engage in running mental commentary, like the “director’s comments” extras on videos? Maybe it’s a serious play, but some portion of the audience thinks it’s hilarious, so some of the actors are trying desperately not to laugh during some character’s hammy death scene? Instances where actors forget their lines are incredibly rare as the rest of the troupe can mentally feed a rookie their lines?

    Recorded telepathy is touched on in some of the cyberpunk settings I’ve seen: usually things like sim chips from Shadowrun that act like movies or video games that you plug in, providing a visual, auditory, and sensory experience. Sort of like the Holodeck from Star Trek, but I don’t recall instances of these manipulating someone’s thoughts; the closest I can think of is from Ghost in the Shell, where actual brain hacking occurs in the story.

    As for reading someone’s thoughts and determining who they are, that feels like it depends on how much of the person’s memories you can read along with thoughts (or simple identity stuff like ‘I am listening for the words “John Doe” because that’s my name’). For example: take the misanthrope, when he witnesses a dog nearby. He hates dogs, feels hate when he sees this dog, and the telepath can read this hate. Can the telepath also see there misanthrope’s memories of being bitten by a dog when very young, or being attacked by police dogs when he was a teenager? Can the telepath read the misanthrope’s dreams of finding that first dog’s owner and taking justified revenge? Such context means the difference between “a meanie that hates dogs,” “a guy who’s only ever had bad experiences with dogs,” or “a potential murderer harboring revenge fantasies.”

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    1. About the play…..have you read The Ship who Sang by Anne McCaffrey? There’s a telepathic play in one of the stories. ‘Dramatic mission’ I think.

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  8. I have actually thought about this before. A problem with telepathy would be the ability to actually understand each others` minds. Every person`s mind and thought process is different. Yes, there are similarities but still many differences. The easiest example of this is words vs. pictures. If you cannot understand how another`s mind works how can you read it? I think you could get around this if you knew that person very well or you are good at understanding how people think. (Though surface thoughts are probably easy to read)

    A show with an interesting take on telepathy is Sense8. Right now it only has one season. I don`t have access to it but the concept is cool. 8 people from all around the world and from different walks of life have their minds suddenly connected. Sensate clusters are not known to most people. Members of a cluster are able to borrow the abilities of another member. The main characters have to sort out being a cluster and getting pulled on by the others.

    Random thoughts:

    How would psychologists do their job?

    The effects telepathy would have on a culture`s view of mental illness are worth thinking about. you would also know if someone was about to commit suicide.

    Strong telepaths/empaths working for 911 dispatchers or the like. They sense someone`s pain/distress, see if they can locate the cause and direct emergency services.

    Cultural privacy norms.

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    1. Sense8 sounds like a very weird idea. Connected to 7 other people you may have never met? Ack.

      Frankly, sensing impending suicide might lead to whole new suicide swarms – MueraRashye’s “Friends Across Borders” fanfic on AO3 has an interesting take on that.

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  9. So… How well would a person with Aphantasia be able to communicate with someone who is very mentally visually oriented? Or a blind/deaf person communicate with someone who isn’t? The modes of thought are so /different/ would it be completely alien concepts or would a strange “translation” coping mechanism work? @-@

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      1. *EG* Really? Because I dunno about you, but when I think in language, it includes the shapes of the letters. As people who use Japanese and Chinese probably have the kanji in their heads – it’s part of the concept!

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      2. Conceptual thinking almost 100% for me, more connotations of images/movement/sensory information without any of the actual information that builds into what I can only explain as 3D webs (multied tiered levels of information/concepts that form a thought or idea or object.)

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  10. I’ve known people who think in pictures and people who think in sound and a few others who think separate thoughts at the same time (which is, apparently unusual?) People’s ways of thinking is interesting and really weird. I’ve had people describe how they sense thought and it was so /alien/ to me that they might have well been a Lovecraftian horror. *shrugs*

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  11. Another factor to take into account is – how deep can telepathy reach? Can you just sense what’s on the surface? Can you sense deeper than that? Can you even sense into the unconscious/subconscious mind? And does everyone have the same ability, or are there differences?

    What about law? Can someone use telepathically obtained information to charge and arrest someone? How do you know the telepath is telling the truth, unless you are yourself a telepath?

    (These are some questions that had to be dealt with in the writing of Search and Rescue. As for the question about law – I’ve got it that telepathic information can serve as probably cause for a search warrant – but cannot be the sole basis of charging someone with something. Oh, and there’s only a small percentage of the population who are telepaths.)

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    1. I like the “probable cause but not enough to charge” take on it. Goes right along with the typical cop’s “I saw something suspicious – I’m not sure exactly what, but it was Suspicious, I’m gonna check it out.”

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