Kat McGowan in Aeon (Anthony Quinn and Anna Karina on the set of 'The Magus'. 1976. Photo by Eve Arnold/Magnum):
Every modern generation has had its own idiosyncratic obsession with telepathy, the hope that one human being might be able to read another person’s thoughts. In the late 19th century, when spiritualism was in vogue, mind-reading was a parlour game for the fashionable, and the philosopher William James considered telepathy and other psychic phenomena legitimate subjects of study for the new science of psychology. By the 1960s, the Pentagon was concerned about Soviet telepathy research and reports that they had established remote communications with submarine commanders. In the 1970s, one ambitious Apollo 14 astronaut took it upon himself to try broadcasting his brainwaves from the moon.
In our technologically obsessed era, the search for evidence of psychic communication has been replaced by a push to invent computerised telepathy machines. Just last year, an international team of neurobiologists in Spain, France and at Harvard set up systems that linked one brain to another and permitted two people to communicate using only their thoughts. The network was basically one massive kludge, including an electroencephalography cap to detect the sender’s neural activity, computer algorithms to transform neural signals into data that could be sent through the internet and, at the receiving end, a transcranial magnetic stimulation device to convert that data into magnetic pulses that cross another person’s skull and activate certain clusters of neurons with an electrical field. With this contraption, the researchers were able to send a signal of 140 bits (the word ‘ciao’) from one person’s brain to another.
This apparatus is complex, expensive and extremely low-bandwidth, achieving a speed of about two bits per minute. Nonetheless, this study and others like it inspire a wave of hope that it might one day be possible to read another person’s thoughts. It’s easy to see why people won’t give up on the idea. Telepathy promises an intimate connection to other human beings. If isolation, cruelty, malice, violence and wars are fuelled by misunderstandings and communication failures, as many people believe, telepathy would seem to offer the cure.