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In Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s popular novel turned blockbuster hit, the people of Earth are waging war against the extraplanetary Buggers. This insect-like race has one major technical advantage over the humans: Telepathy. As if they were a giant computer, the Buggers fight and move as one through instantaneous communication. Countless other tales in fantasy and science fiction herald telepathic powers, the ability to communicate directly from one mind to another, as one of the greatest and most sought over gifts. Though it seems far-fetched, direct mind-to-mind communication might not be so implausible after all.
Researchers at Duke University in North Carolina have shown that telepathic communication could be possible with the advances in technology. In the experiment, two rats’ brains were connected by microelectrodes (For more detail on the experiment and the technology used, watch the video below).
Rat 1 would receive a stimulus and Rat 2 would receive and act on that message. If the rats worked together they would receive a reward. Rat 2 was able to correctly act on the message provided by Rat 1 around 60% of the time. What is even more incredible is that once the experiment was completed at Duke, they teamed up with another University in Brazil, and completed the experiment across continents. The results were astounding. Rat 2 in Brazil acted on the stimulus it received from Rat 1 halfway across the globe!
In the basic communication model, the sender encodes an idea into a message that is transmitted through a channel (language, e-mail, body language) to a receiver who decodes the message to understand the idea of the sender (see image below). I had a professor who explained that it is better to think of an idea as meaning. Have you ever had a thought or feeling and did not have the words to describe it? That is because meaning does not always translate directly into language. Often meaning is lost because the sender decodes a message into different meaning than the sender intended.
What does this have to do with telepathic rats? This technology replaces the normal channels of communication with electronic signals that go directly from one brain to another. This makes it so meaning is being communicated directly from one brain to another, and the brain signals are what encode and decode the idea. Most people imagine telepathy as a voice in their head talking directly to them. I imagine something different, instantaneously understanding an idea or meaning from another person. There is less room for a message or idea to get jumbled or misinterpreted when meaning is passed directly to another person, thus enhancing efficacy as communicators.
Another way that telepathic communication may change the way we communicate is across language barriers. Currently when someone speaks to me in a different language (other than Spanish), the message is not received because I do not speak his or her language. This has become apparent to me in my work as an interpreter coordinator. It is extremely difficult to communicate with someone who you have no idea what they are saying. Direct brain-to-brain communication could solve this problem because meaning, or ideas, does not begin as language. Language is merely the channel we use to communicate. If we could communicate directly, meaning-to-meaning, brain-to-brain, we would be able to understand the thoughts of others without it being lost in translation. This would enhance cultural understanding locally and hopefully better international relations.
Though it will be years before this technology is experimented on with human subjects, it provokes an interesting discussion about how technology effects the way we communicate. In this post, I did not delve into the ethical discussion that surrounds this topic, as it will require another post in its entirety. Maybe someday in the near future we, like the Bugger’s in Orson Scott Card’s novel, will be able to communicate meaning directly from one person to another; and the stuff of science fiction will become reality.