Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Questions about telepathy

Telepathy has fascinated me ever since I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation and wished they would do more with Counselor Troi’s ability (as opposed to her appearance). Thinking about that topic brought up a lot of questions…

1. Why do telepaths speak at all? If telepathy is something common to every member of a species, might their vocal cords eventually atrophy? Or do they only use telepathy for private communication and audible speech otherwise?

What’s the telepathy etiquette, in other words?

2. What methods do telepaths have for including other people in a silent conversation? For instance, in Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels novels, men can communicate with other men on private “spear threads”, while women use “distaff threads”.

Do telepaths who aren’t originally participating in that conversation know of it or hear it anyway? Can they “listen in” if the originators of the conversation don’t intend to include them?

3. Does telepathy only refer to actual, direct speech? Or does it also include the ability to pick up thoughts or images from another person’s mind, whether that person wants to share them or not?

4. If the subjects of such scans were also telepaths, would they know about the scans? How would they react?

5. In a society of telepaths, how would a request for mental privacy be treated?

6. How do people become telepaths? Nature or nurture? If it’s genetic, are there any downsides to it? If it’s learned, what kind of people undertake such a course of study, and what do they do with their training?

7. Does anything block or interfere with telepathy? In Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, a character tries to get away with murder in a society where telepathy is extremely common. To shield his thoughts, he silently repeats a jingle from a song, ”Tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun”.

If another telepath wishes to contact another, does the recipient have the option of not answering at all, similar to not picking up the phone? Can the recipient's mental status be set at "unavailable" during times when concentration is needed elsewhere - such as during a battle?

8. Can telepaths talk silently to children? What, if anything, prevents them from using their ability to influence or otherwise harm impressionable or defenceless minds?

9. What’s the range of telepathy, distance-wise?


JH said...

To me, it seems like there's a few different abilities under discussion, and each seems distinct: mental communication, consensual mind reading, invasive mind reading, passive mind reading, and mind control. It could be possible that they are all manifestations of the same ability at differing levels of power or skill. A related idea to passive mind reading (i.e., passively picking up "surface thoughts") is psychic empathy, sensing and feeling the emotions of others as if they were broadcast.

Anonymous said...

I've just begun watching "Babylon Five" (awesome show, btw). They deal with the ethical issues of telepathic abilities. Psi Corps takes telepaths as children and trains them to block out others' thoughts; it's illegal to scan people against their will, unless they're ordered by law to undergo it. (a suspect in a crime, for example)

Lord Runolfr said...

Star Trek had a pretty lackadaisical attitude toward telepathy. People rarely seemed to mind of a Betazoid was poking around in their thoughts. Makes you wonder what people are used to in the Federation.

Privacy rights around telepaths were a big issue in Babylon 5, with the Psi Corps created specifically to keep telepaths from taking advantage of non-telepathic citizens. Of course, that became a sort of "foxes guarding the henhouse" situation after a while.

Anonymous said...

Psionic/Psychic powers, one of my favorite sci-fi subjects.

If you want a set of rules for dealing with these kinds of powers, you can pick up any comic book RPG and find a nice break down (Mekton + also had some cool rules).

The powers that you describe as GunnerJ pointed out are varied but could all extend from a single power of telepathy. It is a matter of strength versus difficulty.


Folks who can read surface emotions from others. Most of the time they can not communicate telepathically or probe any deeper than basic emotional content. Anyone with a tight control of his/hers emotional state could prevent an empath from picking it up.

Basic Telepath:

Can employ empathy, telepathic communication (with other telepaths or non-telepaths). Could probe a subject minds but that takes particular effort.

Advance Telepaths:

Can do everything the two subjects above can plus probe minds, alter memories and in extreme circumstances take control over another subject mind )or body). May also influence multiple subjects at the same time (I like the idea of telepathic induced illusions/invisibility). May also protect others from telepathic intrusion.


A safe bet is that a trained telepath can also detect and protect himself from others of its kind. Sensibility is also a factor. The ability to "hear" other people thoughts or emotional states can drive a person man, especially if they can not separate their conscious Self from that of others. Sustained metal intrusion may also induce dementia.

Now how easy is it?

That is up to the author. A telepath may be like a sponge, absorbing the thoughts of others or it may take a deliberate act of concentration. On my recent WIP there is a scene where a telepath uses its powers as part of an interrogation.

The process was painful for the subject as as well as the telepath.

And non of this takes into account what happens when the mind of a telepath comes into contact with the thoughts of a member of another species, especially if that species is not sentient or whose mind is truly alien.