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What If We Could Read Minds? - How Telepathy Would Change the World

VO: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Nick Spake
For many, it's the ultimate superpower. Reading minds would allow anyone to see what anyone else was thinking - but would it really be for the better? In this video, we explore how widespread telepathy would affect our everyday lives. Would the world ever be the same again?
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How Reading Minds Would Change The World


As a science fiction superpower, reading minds ranks up there with the very best abilities available. In the real world, however, the concept of telepathy is widely ridiculed as nothing more than a sketchy pseudoscience. But there is method to the supposed madness, and it might just be worth paying attention to!

In 1882, philologist Frederic W. H. Myers coined the term “telepathy”, to essentially replace a previous (and less catchy) expression – “thought-transference”. Since then, various studies have strived to prove the existence of our so-called ‘sixth sense’, but the results have mostly ranged from inconclusive to entirely fraudulent. In fact, one US state-sponsored research panel concluded that there was “no scientific justification for the existence of… extrasensory perception, mental telepathy or ‘mind over matter’ exercises”. So, ESP is hardly VIP in high science circles.

While telepathic communication may never be recognized as quote unquote “real science”, there are other methods of getting inside someone else’s head. You can deduce a great deal through cold reading, for example, which involves intensely studying a person’s body language and appearance. Or you can hook that person up to a Polygraph machine, and at least try to determine whether they’re lying or not – although the results aren’t always conclusive. There have been small breakthroughs in the use of EEG devices to decipher brain activity, and some AI experiments have reportedly pulled images from a person’s mind using fMRI scans. In 2013, there were even reports of an actual brain-to-brain connection achieved between two subjects – although those subjects were literal lab rats.

But what if reading minds was simpler than that? Like surfing the internet, but with a browser tapped in to your target’s every thought, feeling, emotion and intuition. What then?

Broadly speaking, mind-reading would redefine most social landscapes. There’d be no more deciphering what anybody else ‘might mean’ because you’d immediately understand exactly what they’re opinions, motivations, interests and annoyances were. So, to some degree, basic conversation would become much more predictable and probably relaxing. More specifically, reading minds would open up a whole new understanding of mental health, granting insight into any individual’s state of mind. Depression, anxiety or even suicidal thoughts would be easier to spot, and talking through your emotions would feel a natural thing to do – seeing as everyone can see your thoughts anyway.

Other parts of our health and wellbeing could improve too, as communication with anyone who struggles in social situations – such as those with Asperger Syndrome – could be revolutionised. Further still, reading minds would enable us to chat even with people who have lost the ability to speak – whether they’re mute, or living with another disability. Sufferers of locked-in syndrome, for example, could maintain a strong connection with their family and friends.

Elsewhere, there are some clear plus points for the police and justice system, too. According to reports, in 2015 upwards 20,000 people in the U.S. were reportedly punished for crimes they didn’t commit. But, if reading a suspect’s mind was a serious and practical option, irrefutable evidence would be but a brain-scan away, and the truth would be served to us on a silver platter. If mind reading techniques proved especially reliable, courtroom trials could quickly become a thing of the past, replaced by immediate, on-the-spot sentences. Sure, it’d put most lawyers out of a job, but crime rates would probably plummet, and criminals could be dealt with efficiently and inexpensively.

However, the ethical hurdles turn this idealistic reality into something much more morally complex. In the case of law enforcement, at what point would it be permissible to pry into someone else’s innermost thoughts? And would it even be possible to regulate telepathy at all? The ‘innocent until proven guilty’ approach could completely disappear without the need to collect evidence or build a case. And potential negatives pop up elsewhere in society, too.

Lying would be pointless in this alternate reality, which would probably be more curse than blessing. Sometimes honesty really is the best policy, but not always. There’d be no more surprise parties, no need for TV quiz shows, and it’d be almost impossible to discuss films or books with anyone who hadn’t seen or read them, for fear of spoilers. In more extreme conditions, lying can be necessary for somebody to survive. Had the Nazis been able to read minds during Hitler’s rise to power, for instance, then they would likely have rounded up even more victims – without false papers to help targets out of Germany, or brave people ready to lie about another person’s whereabouts. In fact, telepathy could quite easily fuel tyranny the world over, as the mother of all methods to control the masses.

Even if reading minds brought a positive impact to politics, the potential pitfalls are many. Every politician’s personal agenda would be instantly clear and accessible. And while this would theoretically help us to select the most qualified and trustworthy candidates, knowing too much could ultimately backfire. Not only would any democratic voting system be rendered obsolete in a reality where everyone knows exactly who everyone else would, will or has already voted for, but the political leaders who are in charge would struggle to maintain even an ounce of national secrecy or security. There’d be no such thing as ‘classified information’. So, in the absence of confidentiality, chaos would rule. Perhaps the people at the top would somehow be immune to telepathy – but there starts the tyranny we mentioned earlier.

In a ‘Big Brother’ world of social media and internet hacking, our privacy in general is already at risk. But telepathy would tear down whatever walls still remain, leaving us all extra vulnerable. Instead of just being judged for our words and actions, we’d be primarily judged for our thoughts – even the impulsive, irrational, or unpleasant ones. If somebody merely thought something construed as offensive, inappropriate, or unethical, it could change everyone else’s perception of them. Perhaps a world without any filters would cause us to become desensitized over time, but others argue that making private judgments is simply part of human nature.

So, where does that leave our capacity to love? People rarely lay all of their cards on the table during a first date… But for as long as their partner can read their mind – they’d have to. You might argue that it’s best to learn as much as possible about a potential mate upfront – to better your chances of avoiding wasted time or heartbreak. But, since virtually every relationship requires compromise and growth, the slow burn of getting to know someone is more likely to lead to a happy and healthy bond. Even with telepathy, first impressions can only tell us so much.

Let’s say you do find a significant other and eventually get married. No matter how well you both get along, it’s highly doubtful you’ll be compatible 24/7. Couples are bound to have disagreements from time to time, which can lead to feelings of envy, disgust, and resentment. Often, it’s advisable to talk about these problems rather than ignore them. But some negative feelings are fleeting, and sometimes it’s better to just take a deep breath and move on. However, that could prove impossible in a marriage where both people can peer into the other’s psyche – letting the little things go could prove difficult meaning petty disagreements could rumble on for weeks.

Clearly, the pressure of free rein telepathy could quickly prove too much. But reading minds could also see a rush toward anything which promises even a little bit of respite. Activities like meditation and yoga, are often associated with freeing one’s mind from negative thoughts – so those pastimes could become even more popular. More people might try learning a new language, so that they can think in foreign words and phrases. Or, the purposeful thinking of false beliefs could become a sought-after skill, to throw others off-track. Perhaps whole new technologies, or specific high-spec gadgets would emerge – ready to diminish or defend against telepathic connections. Whatever the case, the world would quickly become unrecognisable from what it is now – as everyone realises that their innermost thoughts are what matters most of all.
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