Brain with different color right & left hemisphere graphic (692 x 692 px)

I was just thinking of it.” “I knew you’d say that.” “I just dreamt that something bad (or good) would happen to mama (or papa, or sister, best friend or acquaintance).” Who amongst us has never uttered one of those phrases? I’d say just about nobody. So what is it? Telepathy? Or, something else?

David Grossman’s novel,“Death as a Way of Life,” explores the meaning of these types of premonitions. And what we mean when we use the term “the purported transmission of information from one person to another without using any of our known sensory channels or physical interaction.” 

 

Is Belief in Telepathy Abnormal?

Not quite. But throughout the ages schizophrenics with thought delusions used to believe in different forms of thought insertionSome of the prophets, for instance, Ezekiel, heard God’s voice speaking to them, accompanied by vivid visions. Today, we would classify them as visual and auditory hallucinations. This phenomenon flourished in the Middle Ages, and depending on the content of the hallucination, they were regarded as either holy men and women, or apostates and witches who ended up on the stake.

The hallucinatory content changed with the zeitgeist. Twentieth-century schizophrenics heard voices from a radio, sometimes somehow implanted by mysterious forces in their body. Later on, as paranoia about government and its dark forces became de rigueur, it was the CIA or some UN agency, that was inserting itself into their brain and controlling their thoughts.

Of course, this is not telepathy as we understand it. But quite close. Empirical findings support the idea that people with schizoid personality are particularly prone to believe in paranormal phenomena, including telepathy. That , of course, doesn’t mean that anybody who believes in telepathy has schizoid tendencies. In fact, if you do you are in good company. Sober minds like Arthur Conan Doyle and Upton Sinclair believed in telepathy at some point in their lives. So please, hold the hostile emails!

Why do so many people believe in telepathy? Because our brains are not wired to accommodate coincidences. Quote evidence that identical twins living 300 miles apart and who have never met since infancy, married wives by the same name, then divorced and remarried another woman by the same name, and both have German shepherds — and we all become believers. Our brains demand cause and effect explanations for everything. Ambiguity could mean extinction for our ancestors. When ready explanations of the physical world were not readily evident there was always the belief in the paranormal and supernatural deity to restore order to the world.

It looked like science debunked the belief in telepathy once and for all when the physicists John Taylor and Eduardo Balanovski wrote that the only scientifically feasible explanation for telepathy could be electromagnetism (EM) involving EM fields. In a series of experiments, the EM levels were many orders of magnitude lower than calculated so that no paranormal effects were possible, and none were observed.

So, end of story, right? Not so fast.

 

Telepathy, and not paranormal.

A paper titled Direct Brain-to-Brain Communication in Humans in PLOS ONE ( Nov.4, 2014) caught my unbelieving eye. How is that possible, in this day and age, to find a scientific paper on this topic especially in a highly respected peer-reviewed journal? Here is what it described.

The story started in Kerala, India, where Dr. Riera wore EEG electrodes while imagining he was making a series of either horizontal or vertical movements. The mental effort he made to execute each type of virtual ‘movement’ sent one of two sorts of electric pulses into the EEG. A computer translated one of those pulses into the number 1, and the other into a 0, thus creating a digital binary code which he was able to build up to represent the letters of the alphabet he was trying to generate.

sender, Dr. in Kerala india
sender, Dr. Riera in Kerala India Source: PLOS ON

His communication of ‘hola’ and ‘ciao’ took half an hour of intense concentration to complete. It was then emailed via his laptop to France.

In a Strasbourg laboratory, Dr Berg and two fellow ‘receivers’ were meanwhile blindfolded and hooked up to a machine, which converted the binary message into pulses of electricity sent to the occipital lobe of their brains, the region that governs sight.

Receiver, Dr. berg in Strasbourg France
Receiver, Dr. Berg in Strasbourg France.  Source: PLOS ONE

When the pulses were fired, they, then, experienced ‘phosphenes’ or white flashes on the periphery of their vision. Different pulses corresponded with either the number ‘one’ or ‘zero’. The phosphenes could be converted back by the ‘receiver’ into binary code, and from there once more into the words ‘hola’ and ‘ciao’, in a process that took another half hour.

So there you have it. A message was communicated between two brains 4600 miles apart without the involvement of any of the five senses. I wanted to cry foul. This is cheating! That’s not what we meant by telepathy. Yet, here it is brain-to-brain communication across 4600 miles! Mind boggling. Yes, still slow and clunky. But all beginnings are. The principle has been demonstrated; the rest is merely technical. Powerful computers can translate the binary code they devised a lot faster. The code can be simplified. Artificial Intelligence can recognize a word before its completion.

 

The Potential

Think of it: handicapped people could communicate with their prostheses by just thinking — exactly how we communicate with our muscles and limbs. How about people in coma or in “locked-in syndrome”? The latter is a condition of the patient being fully awake but unable to communicate. It will be possible to communicate with them. Or more down to earth: what if we could communicate with each other remotely without using our smart phones? These devices will look pretty dumb by then.

But for every silver lining, there is a dark cloud. Can you see cops arresting people because they intended to commit a crime? Judges being able to tell if you are telling the truth (not so bad, actually), governments able to weed out dissent. Orwellian world.

Hopefully, it won’t come to that. We could, rather should, devise new laws to take account of this brave new world. We could protect ourselves from the evil and harvest the good that science offers. I am sure we’ll follow the right course…after we try all the alternatives.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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