Telepathy: Why it's More Trouble than we Thought

Sheri Wells-Jensen
Here are lecture notes from the telepathy presentation.


Normal Human Speech Production

  1. Forming a proposition. Before a speaker of any human language can utter a sentence, s/he forms an intention to speak and an idea to put into words. Linguists call this the 'proposition'. The structure of a proposition is not well understood. It certainly consists of a conceptualization of the participants being discussed, the activity in which they are engaging and the speaker's general attitude toward these actions and participants. The speaker's goal (what s/he wants to accomplish by the utterance) is also part of this. This may be the same in any human language since the proposition is essentially prelinguistic.
  2. Making a plan for a sentence. Once the proposition is formed, the speech production system of the particular language takes over, assigning a sentence structure to the proposition, words to the sentence structure, and sounds to the words.
  3. Uttering the sentence. The result of the previous two steps is a string of information which can be fed to the muscles of the vocal tract. Speaking produces an acoustic signal. Note that the speaker's attitude and intention are generally conveyed by intonation. Intonation is often a more important source of information about the speaker's emotional status and intent than is the linguistic content of the utterance. Intonation may reinforce the meaning of the words chosen, or it may negate it as in irony or sarcasm

Normal Human Speech Perception

Note that this is essentially performing the three steps above backward.
  1. Hearing the signal. An acoustic signal is perceived, identified as speech and sent to the speech perception system to deal with. (Note that there is a syndrome called 'word deafness' where signals can be physically perceived but are not identified as speech.) Intonation information is noted in this stage and is generally processed separately on the right side of the brain.
  2. Parsing. The acoustic signal is processed according to the requirements of the language of the hearer. Roughly speaking, it is broken down into words.
  3. Interpretation. The output of step 5 is something that may be much like the propositions produced by speakers in step 1 above. Information from the intonation contour of the utterance, if available, is integrated here, modifying the proposition which is finally understood by the hearer.

What is a Telepathic Message?

We are not concerned here with the method of transmission, only with the structure of that which is transmitted. There is also no discussion here of alien Gricean maxims which might hinder communication or of special Gricean maxims for telepathic communication which might amealorate some of the problems discussed here.

Telepathic messages might be

Type A: The output of step 3.
This would be the mental representation of an acoustic signal. The sender "hears words" at the receiver. This mental voice, or silent speech, could include intonational cues just as a spoken version of the message would. The signal would then be processed by the receiver just as incoming acoustics signals are, beginning more or less at step 4 with the hearer identifying the mental acoustics as speech. Perhaps, this could even include amplitude information, making it possible to shout or mentally whisper. It would be as easy to lie via this kind of telepathy as it is in ordinary speech since the sender's intention to lie (if s/he is a skilled liar) would not be overtly represented in the mental acoustic signal.
Type B: The output of step 2.
This would mean that the sender forms sentences, but does not include intonational information. The receiver would begin at step 5. This would be the mental equivalent of passig notes but without the advantage of recognizing handwriting or the ability to change fonts or write larger for emphasis. Deception would be even easier than a type B telepathic message.
Type C: The output of step 1.
The sender broadcasts linguistic propositions--the input to the language-specific sentence making component. This might, in fact, make it possible for beings who do not share a language to communicate since the message has not been encoded via the rules for any particluar language. The receiver begins at step 6. Deception might be more difficult with Type C telepathy since the sender's intention (in this case the intent to deceive) forms the basis for encoding or creating sentences and all this would be passed to the receiver.
Type D: The product of prelinguistic mechanisms; the output of what might be called step 0.
This is the most attractive (and the most problematic) type of telepathy. It assumes the direct transmission and reception of pure thought without intervening language. If tenable, this would make it possible for beings who do not share a language to communicate since the message has not been shaped by language. The receiver can opt completely out of language encoding. Unless it is possible to partian the mind, holding some thoughts in reserve as private, deception would not be possible in type D telepathy.
It may well be that compatibility between languages is less difficult than compatibility between minds.
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