What’s the Deal with Mindreading?

This week, we got another announcement proclaiming that direct “brain-to-brain” communication has been achieved. Cue headlines invoking telepathy, ESP, and the arrival of a scientific future, such as this one from Bustle:


The scientific article in question actually lays out a much more limited approach, one that involved reducing the simple message of “hola” or “ciao” to a binary code that was transmitted via flashes of light to a human receiver, who then decoded them into the message. There’s a lot to say about the article in question, and the typical hyperbolic rhetoric surrounding it. But my question is a simpler one: why are researchers (and publics) so interested in mindreading in the first place?

The authors of the article seed public interest in the Discussion section, where they note: “We believe these experiments represent an important first step in exploring the feasibility of complementing or bypassing traditional language-based or other motor/PNS mediated means in interpersonal communication,” suggest the future possibility of direct brain-to-computer interfaces, and then suggest that “The widespread use of human brain-to-brain technologically mediated communication will create novel possibilities for human interrelation with broad social implications that will require new ethical and legislative responses.”

First of all, what is wrong with the means of communication we already have? The article suggests a frustration with “traditional language-based” communication, which presumably is messy and incomplete. That is, we often have trouble understanding each other, and if we could only communicate brain-to-brain, we might be able to get around that problem. In this way–and in the actual study design itself–the researchers are trying to invoke what language researchers call a “windowpane view of language,” a model in which there is a clear message that can be transmitted and interpreted by a receiver. The flashy (and clearly made-for-public) image included in the article demonstrates a windowpane model of language:

brain message


Here, we have the “emitter,” who consciously encodes a message, sends it via the internet to a robot, who programs it into the “receiver.” The choice of the simple message of “hola” (hello) or “ciao” (goodbye) is important here, because it is presumably a clear-cut message that can only be interpreted in one way–almost like a yes or no, or like the binary code to which the message is reduced.

Scientists love this idea of language as clear, transparent, and codifiable. Carolyn Miller describes this “windowpane view” as one that assumes that language “provides a view out onto the real world”; the idea that language can be either “clear” (good) or “obfuscated” (bad). Clear language gets the message across; as long as your language is clear and transparent, there can be no misunderstanding. Such a view of language is, fundamentally, a mistrust of rhetoric: of the idea that messages are always messy, subjective, and slippery. To avoid grappling with the messiness of language, scientists cling to the idea of a plain language and a model of input-output.

Unfortunately, language doesn’t work that way. Even a simple message like “hello” or “goodbye” could be interpreted in lots of different ways. Is one simply being friendly? Or is the “hello” meant in a come-hither way? Or a sarcastic way?

clueless hello


For a primer on current theories of language (explained with hipsters), check out this tutorial. Briefly, we now understand that meaning is always deferred: language means something by referring to something else; language is always metaphorical; it is fundamentally unstable. We make meaning by interpreting signs, and the same signs work differently in different contexts, so we depend on that context to interpret meaning. As this image illustrates, something as simple (and apparently clear-cut) as a hat, an earring, or a vintage camera conveys meaning to an audience, depending on the context. Just as the word “hello” means different things in different contexts, so do these visual symbols.


The mechanistic model of communication used in brain-to-brain research enacts the fantasy of communication stripped of all these layers of meaning, emotion, and tone, a type of communication that will finally be “clear” and “transparent.” Yet this fantasy also strikes some as scary–that is why the authors invoke “ethical” implications–and why Bustle.com calls it “heebie-jeebie inducing.” As was the case with transcranial stimulation–which has often been linked to conspiracy theories of government mind control, the idea of brain-to-brain communication evokes dystopian science fiction, from Doctor Who to A Clockwork Orange to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The flipside of a language stripped of context and made fully transparent–the fantasy of positivist science–is a language rendered (paradoxically) even more amenable to manipulation. Both of these fears, I’d argue, reflect a fundamental fear of rhetoric: a fear that language is not plain, is not clear, and is always suasive.

The ancient rhetoricians tackled these concerns early on. In “The Encomium of Helen,” Gorgias declared language to be akin to a drug: “The effect of speech upon the condition of the soul is comparable to the power of drugs over the nature of bodies.” Speech, Gorgias declares, can cause “some distress, others delight, some cause fear, others make the hearers bold, and some drug and bewitch the soul with a kind of evil persuasion.” These paradoxes of language, I would argue, underlie the obsession with brain-to-brain communication, with telepathy, mind-reading, and a clarified language (on the one hand) and mind control, manipulation, and malign persuasion (on the other).

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