Superpowers: Telepathy

Telepathy (the ability to read the minds of other beings) is an interesting thing to contemplate.  There are a number of websites out there with “Top ten superpowers it would be terrible to have!” articles, and telepathy is always on there.  The reason why telepathy would be a bad thing to have, typically goes like this:

“Telepathy would be a terrible super-power.  It would be like being stuck in a room with a thousand radios, all set to full volume, all set to a different station, and being unable to turn any of them off.  A constant barrage of thoughts from everyone would drive a telepath insane, and unable to function at all.”

If you consider that telepathy is analogous to hearing, then that scenario is likely correct.   People assume that telepathy is similar to hearing because when we form thoughts, we form them in sentences as they would be “heard” by ourselves (to refine them) or by others (when we state them).  So naturally, mind-reading would be picking up on those audio sentences formed in our brains.

But what if it isn’t like hearing?

Of the five accepted human senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste), these can be divided into two categories: directed, and undirected.  Directed senses are things like sight, taste and touch.  In the case of these three, we can stop perceiving certain things without blocking the sense entirely.  We can choose to look away, not touch a thing with our tongue, or not touch a thing period.   If something is painful to look at, we can turn our head and look at something else.  If something tastes terrible, we can stop eating it.

(Touch is a bit more problematic, because we have to be grounded on the earth.  If we’re walking on something uncomfortable, we have to find something more comfortable to walk on, and that might involve walking further on the uncomfortable bit.  We can’t simply stop being on the one, and go to the other.)

Undirected senses are hearing and smelling.  In the case of these, if something is offensive to the sense in question, you can shut off perception to that sense (blocking one’s ears, holding one’s nose).   But that means blocking everything relating to that sense.  You put your hands over your ears, and yes, you no longer hear the unpleasant sound.  But you no longer hear anything else, either.  You do not have the choice of, “I will listen to this sound, and not listen to this sound.”  Your choice is to deal with the sound, or close off all sounds.  With sight, if you see something you would rather not, you can look away, turn away to something nicer.   You can say, “I will not look at this.  I will look at this other thing instead.”  Your sense of sight is still working.  Your sense of hearing is not.

So, back to telepathy.  What if it’s not like hearing, but more like sight?  What if a telepath, in the middle of a crowd, is not confronted with a room full of radios, but rather a room with a magazine rack.  Instead of a chaotic din of noise, he has a choice of reading material.  He can select a magazine, open it, read it, put it back, and select another.

The problem is this:  unlike people who have walked on the Moon, or climbed Mount Everest, or done any number of extraordinary things, being a telepath is outside the experience of every human being on the planet.  So far as we know, there are no telepaths.  No one has stepped forward to say, “You’re all goofy.  Telepathy is nothing like you imagine.  Read my book!”  Because walking on the Moon or climbing Mount Everest can be conveyed to us as human beings doing human things, only to an extraordinary degree.  We know what climbing is like.  We can imagine low gravity.  Those are not outside our ability to experience, or imagine.

You can’t say that about telepathy.  Telepathy is probably a unique experience, one impossible to convey to the non-telepathic.   It would be like someone blind from birth trying to describe the concept of “color.”  He might be able to convey certain things based on other senses – “red is probably like the smell of apple pie” – but the actual details are going to remain outside of his grasp.

The ultimate point of this, is this:  evolution doesn’t throw things out without a purpose, and without a point.  There aren’t any crabs with three claws, because that doesn’t help that crab survive.  Similarly, there aren’t any sponges or lichens capable of picking up short-wave radio transmissions because, again, such perceptions would serve no purpose and would simply pile on perceptions that these creatures could not use in their day-to-day quest to survive and reproduce.  (So that survival is passed to the next generation.)

“Usefulness” seems to be what evolution works toward.  An ability which did not give an advantage, but was instead a hindrance, would be corrected in the next generation.  If there were usefulness, though–

By the way, if any of you out there are telepaths, let me know.  I’ll be happy to edit this entry for you.

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