Can We Really Read Minds?

Telepathy and the interbrain.

Posted Sep 30, 2009

The belief in telepathy is deeply rooted in many of us, and not only science fiction fans. Mothers ring their daughters thousands of miles away, and their daughters say, "How did you know? I was just thinking of you". We walk into a room and we just get a feeling about someone: it is as if we knew what they were thinking, and what they will say next.

Professors of parapsychology--and there are a few--have been unable to replicate these results in the laboratory. Minds they have to conclude cannot pass thoughts or images to other minds directly. Perhaps this should not be a surprise. After all, we do pass thoughts and images to each other pretty effectively by speaking, drawing, singing, and so on. More to the point, our minds are our own, and we want them to remain so. We fight to keep our original thoughts. So is telepathy just wishful thinking, born out of our wish to be close to our loved ones and not feel that they have minds that will be for ever closed to us? Or is it a more general feeling against the scientists and others who seem to want to reduce everything to atoms without allowing for the connectedness that joins us to the universe?

I don't think that telepathy is just wishful thinking, and nor do many neuroscientists. Except that they do not think that minds are connected, but brains. You don't have to be a scientist to know this, of course. We all know that we can be feeling down in the dumps, but if we meet friends we can be cheered up by their obvious cheerfulness even if they don't say anything: their good cheer can be contagious. This kind of contagion can occur without us even being aware of it--and if we become aware of it, we may back away from it. If, for example, we think: "It's all very well for them to be happy. They don't know what it's like to be me" then we can block the good cheer from changing our mood. It can even make it worse. At a more basic level, if we experience ourselves as not belonging to the group, the contagion effect may not work. We may even deny it. We may say to a friend who says to us, "You soon cheered up", that we were not really feeling cheerful at all, but just didn't like to spoil the party.

So between the contagion of emotions like good cheer, and our own conscious perception of our mood, there can be many cut outs. I think that they are there for a reason. These cut outs allow us to have a mind of our own, and not be under the control of our brains. They are, with the development of language and the ability to tell ourselves stories about ourselves--the inner narrative which the psychologist Vygotsky described, precursors to the development of what is nowadays called a ‘theory of mind'.

Current neuroscience is demonstrating that many emotions can spread from brain to brain, and these emotions can be complex ones, amounting to what we might call emotional attitudes or dispositions. In one study, a spirit of cooperation was engendered when people marched in step. It was if moving in physical synchrony led to other kinds of harmonious actions. We may conclude that the military do know a thing or two when they concentrate so much on drill.

Much of this work is feeding into the growing science of neuroeconomics. Some of the founding studies in this field used fMRI scans of two people who were being scanned simultaneously whilst interacting with each other. Whether or not the protagonists trust each other influences what happens, but in the trust condition, the brain state of one of them is mirrored by the brain state of the other. This happens as a result of the steps in the game. But more direct contagion occurs when emotions are transmitted. The same areas of the brain are active when a person experiences an emotion as when another person registers the facial expression. People who see another person in pain have activity in those brain areas that are also active when being in pain. So there is a transfer of brain states, which can lead to the transfer, or contagion, of feelings too-that is, if we allow it. There is nothing magical or even mysterious about this.

We are constantly communicating with each other nonverbally as well as verbally. We exchange smiles and nods. We bend towards or away from each other, depending on how our relationship feels at any one moment. We start moving when other people in our group do, and move in the same direction. We form herds and go along with them. These actions are encoded by our brains which instruct our muscles to contract or relax in the pattern characteristic of that action and, it turns out, the same areas of the brain are often involved in decoding another person's action, too, in a process that is usually now called ‘mirroring'. Mirroring, in monkeys at least, has been shown to occur at the level of single nerve cells, some of which fire when doing a particular action, and when seeing it done by others.

Telepathy means feeling at a distance, but when most of us think of it, we do not just mean feeling at a distance. We mean that we can know what someone is thinking, too. Recent research suggests that nonverbal communication and linking one brain to another might be able to achieve that, too. Imagine you are walking along, and around you people start looking up with a worried or intrigued expression. Do you feel an itch to stop, and look up, too? I do. Sometimes, I force it back down, but if enough people are looking up, and enough of them are looking bothered, then I think "Perhaps it's something I should know about" and I stop and look, too. The same phenomenon of ‘rubber necking' slows up our freeways after an accident. Recent research indicates that gaze following, as it is referred to in the science literature, is a common way for attention to become redeployed in many social situations, with people tending to share a focus of attention as a result.

There are some animals who do this a lot, too. These include the expected, ‘almost human' ones like the great apes, but some unexpected ones, too, like crows and parrots. It may not be by chance that these are the animals who are the best able to mimic human speech. One problem for the ostensive theories of speech development, which argue that we acquire the names of things by having the things pointed out and then hear their names spoken, is that we have to learn what pointing means to do this. But if we automatically follow the direction of another person's gaze--whether or not their gaze direction is reinforced by them turning their heads in that direction or by pointing--then we do not need to learn to use pointing: we just reflexively follow it.

This language theory only works if we do not just turn our eyes to follow other people's gaze, but if we are sufficiently interested in other people's eyes to be constantly monitoring them, and if we are able to make the leap from following another's gaze to thinking, "So that's what he's looking at". Actually we don't very often have to pause and reflect on that. We just assume that if we are looking at what someone else is already looking at, we are both attending to the same thing. There is lots of evidence for each of these steps: for a focus on other people, on faces, and, particularly on the eye region, for gaze following, and for an assumption of ‘joint attention'. Joint attention does not mean having the same thoughts. It might mean having an eye on the same predator, or the same object of desire, or being aware of the same way out as the next person, or even simply this is the place to look for the next interesting event i.e. a priming effect. So joint attention is, like emotional contagion, better understand as something linking brains, rather than minds although it is not a link of feeling but a link of a substrate of thought.

The brain to brain connections that we all sense when we think that telepathy must really exist, do not function like the thought transfer of early experiments on telepathy. Science is often inspired by technology, and those early experiments may have imagined the mental equivalent of the telephone. As if our minds could call up other minds on a kind of invisible or microscopic telephone receiver. I think that the better metaphor is that of the internet. All of our internet-enabled computers get viruses and malware, emails pushed to our webmail box, updates to our programs, and other background activities as a result of our computer interfacing with other computers acting as servers. We are often unaware of these happenings except sometimes as distractions because our computers seem to have slowed down. But they affect everything that our computer does, for good or ill, and occasionally they generate a pop-up message that does come up on our screens and we become conscious of. The vision that comes out of recent research into how one brain influences another through nonverbal communication is so like the internet, that I have called it the interbrain. In fact the sub-title of my most recent book is "Nonverbal communication, Asperger syndrome, and the Interbrain". I give much of the scientific basis for the points made in this blog in that book.

The interbrain is pervasive, and for me it accounts for many other features of life that seem mysterious, like telepathy. How, for example, do so many of us know what is in fashion, and what is out of fashion? Or who is the latest up and coming celebrity? Or which person is most popular? (that one is easy, that is the person who gets most friendly smiles) Or most important? (easy too, that's the person who gets looked at the most). These things bypass our minds, and go straight to our brains. We don't know them explicitly, we know them by a different process of ‘commonsense'.

So where has all this new information come from? How come no-one has talked about the interbrain before now?

The answer is partly technological. We did not have the model of the interbrain until recently, and we did not the functional neuroimaging methods to show that brains influence each other until recently, either. But another answer is implied in the wording of the sub-title of my book: "nonverbal communication, Asperger syndrome, and the interbrain". That answer is the explosion of interest in Asperger syndrome, and the recognition that impaired nonverbal communication is a common feature in all of the autistic spectrum disorders. I argue in my book that people with Asperger syndrome have a ‘low bandwidth interbrain connection'. Their brains, like all our minds, are much more stand alone than the rest of us ‘neurotypicals'. That is a cause of great difficulty, but can also be a source of strength, particularly in explaining why many people with Asperger syndrome are able to be so original and why many of them seem so intuitively knowledgeable about machines: unlike the rest of us, they don't think try to treat them as if they were people (although some people with Asperger syndrome may make the opposite mistake, and treat people like machines).

The title of my book is "Can the world afford autistic spectrum disorder?" I do not mean can we pay for autistic spectrum disorder, even though it can cause a lot of disorder including expensive psychiatric problems, but can we make a place for people with Asperger syndrome. One way to do that is for the neurotypicals amongst us all to become more aware of our reliance on the interbrain, and that reliance is both a strength and a weakness. After all, telepathy may be great when you're with someone you love, but what about encountering a telepathic sales person; someone who could use their knowledge of your thoughts to persuade you to spend more than you have? In later blogs, I intend to discuss how we defend ourselves against hazards like the salesman who reads us too well and what, if anything, we can do if we are just the opposite, and we feel that other people are like a closed book.