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Telepathy and Techlepathy

As part of the undergraduate course I teach about post-literacy, I have a psychic attend the class. I have worked with Linda Cooper Taylor for a number of years; she is an experienced clairvoyant medium. The objective of Linda’s session is to demonstrate alternative means of knowing and communicating (especially over time and space). The student reaction is mixed. Most are excited about the session but a few are very disturbed, even upset. In the past I have had students ask to be excused from Linda’s session because it offends some of their beliefs. Teachable moments abound.

Linda is calm, patient, and very matter-of-fact. For Linda, nothing very unusual is going on. For many of the students it is a visceral challenge to their understanding of how humans can interact. Whether you believe Linda is psychic or that there is such a thing as psychic power, Linda practices it every day. She also believes that everyone is psychic given appropriate training, focus, and receptivity.

As Linda reads cards with the students, studies candle burnings or uses other tools, she uncovers information about the students: their past, their present, and intimations of their future. The students are shocked or chagrined but a door has opened. It is the realization that post-literacy will challenge strongly held beliefs. It is not value neutral. It will come in forms that could be disturbing, controversial, and even threatening. As a consequence of her session, Linda illustrates that being on the outside of a capacity of tremendous power (e.g. us, the non-psychics) is an uncomfortable and puzzling position. The suspicion was clear, and the anxiety grew as Linda’s insights appeared to be more and more accurate.

While psychic powers are much broader than telepathy, it is the telepathic capacity that seems a more likely candidate as a platform for post-literacy. Technologies to support brain scanning have advanced significantly over the past few years. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been used to observe various changes in activity in the brain and is being used to determine behaviour and functionality. While it is a very big leap from fMRI to “mind reading” it is sobering to note that Microsoft has already registered a patent for a mind reading device.

John-Dylan Haynes from the Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin as been able to “read” the intentions of trial participants (Haynes et al., “Reading Hidden Intentions in the Human Brain”, 2007). This is possible because our intent to act is stored in a different part of the brain than where the action is actually initiated. Tracking this area of intention allowed Haynes to predict the outcome before it occurs. The experiment Haynes uses is very simple in that the intentions involved are not complex (a participant must decide whether they will add or subtract two numbers before they actually do the math for the observer; the fMRI scan the state of both intention and the final action, this is then used to predict action in subsequent tests). While still rudimentary, the importance of the finding is the physiological identification of intent.

The neurological discoveries resulting from the use of fMRI and similar technologies have been dramatic and profound. However, these are still the blunt instruments of their field. They measure only certain things and can assess only limited types of changes or activities. The tools will improve. Our ability to watch and track the brain will become more precise and useful. As we uncover the mysteries of the physiology of information we will move towards “mind reading” in some form. And why not? We do it now in a metaphorical sense (“You read my mind. How did you know I wanted to do that?”). We already take in clues and stimuli that allow us to assess someone’s state of mind. It’s not mind reading in the classic sense but it is sensitivity to others in a way that opens up channels and connectivity. It reminds us that post-literacy, like the early stages of our use of the alphabet, will be crude and unsophisticated.

Dr. Kevin Warrick of the University of Reading, a leading researcher in the area of cyborgs, has proposed “techlepathy” as a possible future: technology enabled telepathy (Warrick, 2002). Using embedded computers and wireless technology as neurological prosthetics, Warrick imagines us being able to communicate through these channels and the BCI would enable us to process that information. Some exchanges would be conscious while some would be a new kind of technology enabled unconscious communication. In trying to imagine what this might be like, the students in one of my classes suggested “think of texting in your head.”

Kevin Warrick, Cyborg Interfaces (TEDxOxford)
“Let’s go for the future. Let’s be cyborgs.”

For the DYI version of Warrick’s experiments see Ben Popper’s “Cyborg America: inside the strange new world of basement body hackers.”

Linda Cooper Taylor and Kevin Warrick couldn’t be more dissimilar but they are experiencing much the same thing. Whether it is telepathy or techlepathy, the emerging opportunity is to connect ourselves in more intimate and profound ways. By using different tools we can open up new channels and be receptive to new ways of knowing. When Warrick was connected to his wife via implants into their nervous systems (and interconnected over a computer network), they experienced interactions that were odd and confusing yet intimate. Hardly an exchange poised to depose literacy but, like early writing, a crude intimation of a capacity that seems transformational. The pulses and signals that Warrick and his wife shared were like the proto-writing markings of the Neolithic age that eventually evolved into writing systems.

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