Picture: Freeman Dyson. I see that at Edge they have kept up their annual custom of putting a carefully-chosen question to a group of intellectuals.  This year, they asked “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”. There were many interesting answers. Freeman Dyson foresaw what he called ‘radiotelepathy‘. The idea is that a set of small implants record the activity of your brain which is then transmitted and delivered into someone else’s (and vice versa). Hey presto, at once your thoughts and feelings are shared.

As the Thinking Meat Project remarked,  this idea opens up a number of questions. Given our particular interests here, the first point that came to mind was that this kind of telepathy would surely resolve at last the vexed question of qualia. How do we know that the red seen by others looks the same as the red seen by us? Perhaps the experience they have when they see red is the experience we have when we see green? Or perhaps (a less-often discussed possibility) their red is a bit like our middle C on a badly-tuned piano? Or perhaps their colour experiences are nothing like any of our experiences; perhaps there are an infinite number of phenomenal experiences which go with the perception of colour, and everyone has their own unique and ineffable set.

Well, with Dyson telepathy, there would be no need for us to wonder any more; just tune in to someone else’s brain, and we can have their experiences ourselves. Or can we? Perhaps not. Even as I write, I can sense hard-liners getting ready to insist that qualia recorded, transmitted, and inserted into a new brain, are not the same as the freshly gathered original ones.  You still wouldn’t know what the real thing was like. It might be that it is our brains themselves that impart the special what-it-is-likeness to experiences, in which case even telepathy won’t help, and we can only ever have our own qualia. I think this exposes the insoluble problem at the heart of the whole qualia issue. Really the only way to know what someone’s experiences are like in themselves, is to be that person. But you can’t be someone else.

But steady on, because it seems highly unlikely to me that Dyson telepathy is feasible. I don’t see any insoluble problem with the hardware he calls for, but downloading brain content is a tricky business, and uploading is even worse. To start with, Dyson talks about the ‘entire brain’, but do we want the whole thing? Do I want the activity of someone else’s cerebellum reproduced in my own? Do I want the control routines for my caridovascular system overwritten? No thanks. So even on the macro scale we have to be very careful about where we put our ingoing signals. Pinpointing the right neurons seems a hopeless task. It’s true that by and large the same regions of the cortex appear to deal with the same functions in different individuals, although variation is also quite possible. It’s also true that recent research has identified individual neurons with very specific responses – neurons that fire, say, in response to the sight of Freeman Dyson, but not in response to anyone else. But so far as I know, it hasn’t been demonstrated that the Dyson neuron in everyone is in the same place even approximately; it actually seems most unlikely, given that brains are wired in highly individual ways, and that indeed, most people have never had the pleasure of meeting Freeman Dyson. I don’t think it’s even been shown that the very same neuron which responds to Dyson today continues to do so next week.  Because all our machines are made to have their states encoded in a readable way, we tend to expect the same of nature, but evolution has no need of legible code.  So it’s very likely that the neural activity which in my brain corresponds to thinking of Freeman Dyson would, when transposed to another cranium,  come out as the tantalising memory of the taste of a biscuit, or an intimation of mortality, or reservations about bicameralism.

Of course it’s worse than that.  Our brains are carefully organised, and the random dumping of alien activity would be oustandingly likely to mess things up.  Would the brain activity that was there before – my own mental activity – be wiped out, so that instead of sharing someone else’s thoughts, I suddenly thought I was someone else? Or could it somehow be merged? Dissolving the barriers and merging with another person can sound almost sensuously appealing (given the right person), but the sudden appearance of unforeshadowed alien thoughts might actually be terrifying, severely disorienting: a threat to the integrity of the psyche liable to end in trauma. In this respect, it’s worth noting that nothing is more disruptive to one signal than another similar signal. If you write a sentence on a piece of paper and then cross it out with two or three lines, it remains easily legible. But if you write even one other sentence over the top of it, it becomes pretty much illegible at once. In the same way, it seems likely that activity from another brain would be the most dirsuptive thing you could input to your own, far worse than random noise.

I think the best alternative would be to home in on sensory inputs in the brain and try to place your interface somewhere early in the system before those inputs reach the more complex functions of consciousness. The result then would be more like hearing an external voice, or seeing an external hallucination. Much easier to deal with, but of course not so extraordinary – not really different in kind from using a video phone. At the end of the day, perhaps it’s best to stick to the brain inputs provided by the designer – our normal senses.  Walter Freeman memorably lamented the cognitive isolation in which we are all ultimately confined; but perhaps that isolation is the precondition of personal identity.


  1. 1. Alex says:

    As for contributing to the solution of the qualia problem, I don’t buy it. The problem becomes more clear if we imagine using one of these devices to tune in to the brain of a bat. Doing this would have some bizaar consequence, but that consequence would certainly not be that you would know what it is like to be a bat. The problem is that a human brain doesnt have the hardware to generate bat-experiences. This is the same problem that must be the case for qualia – if in fact we experience qualia differently from each other – it must be because of subtle differences in the hardware of our brains that I see a red object in a different shade than you do. If we really do see things differently, its because our brains take the same input and generate a different experience as a result of our unique neuronal make up. This means that I couldn’t have the same experience of red as you, even with one of these devices, because the hardware that generates that experience for you doesn’t exist in my brain. If I’m having a slightly different experience in the first place, its because my brain is slightly different, so your experience cant be translated into my brain.

    I suppose this discussion ignores the more philosophical problem of qualia, which implies that identical brain states may yield completely different qualia and we have no way of knowing… but discussions of that problem are rarely productive. And this hypothetical device makes no progress there either because transmitting information about your brain when your “having some quale” into my brain is about the same thing as both of our brains having the same sensory input(i.e. we both look at the same object). . . we would both name our experience as one of redness but we could never be sure that it was phenominally identical in our respective consciousnesses.

  2. 2. dimas says:

    nice thoughts. I agree :)
    is it possible though that alongside telepathy, the whole idea of “universal self” (or brahman, cosmic cosciousness, the mind of god, quantum mechanical field, etc) could be attained if we merge everyone into one entity? is it the epicentre of mystic experience described by so many individuals? i still can’t even begin to understand what they mean by all that, but the whole idea of telepahy and of sharing each other’s consciousness harkens back to these recollections i read..

  3. 3. haig says:

    My first instinct was the same as yours, that neural patterns representing brain states would be heterogeneous and vastly idiosyncratic. As you put it, Freeman Dyson’s neuron for a particular state is different than someone else’s neuron(s) for that same particular state.

    However, it appears that there is enough similarity that the pattern of neurons which fire when I see a banana, say, would be incredibly similar to yours when you see a banana. Of course, there are differences such as if you had a traumatic experience relating to bananas or some strong association it would cause the patterns to differ, however, enough similarity remains for pattern recognition algorithms to identify the brain state. The link below is to a study in which intentions are identified using fmri and statistical pattern recognition (SVMs).


  4. 4. Peter says:

    Thanks, Alex.

    Dimas – Yes, it does sound like some mystical ideas. I don’t know whether merging people would achieve that sort of cosmic oneness – I expect it depends on how you did it. I think the Gnostics, or example, would say that it’s not a matter of merging the people who happen to be on earth so much as merging back with the prime entity somewhere out there in metaphysical space. It’s probably a typically Western attitude to think that this kind of thing could be addressed by technology.

    Haig – many thanks for the link. That seems to suggest that having someone else’s brain activity piped in would be a curious experience – some items looking much the same, others different but recognisable – and I think there would surely still be some which were strangely distorted or substituted.

    Perhaps we’d find that some people were more compatible than others (quite likely twins would be compatible, though I believe the wiring of neurons in the brain is one of the things which isn’t identical in identical twins).

    I must admit my instinct is still that it would be problematic.

  5. 5. dimas says:

    Alex – but wouldn’t you agree though that the hardware we have is still much more similar among it’s possessors than for example the hardware of a bat, a dog or pretty much any other species?

  6. 6. steevithak says:

    It seems to me this wouldn’t help with the qualia problem because a necessary part of connecting the communication hardware would be tuning it so the correct signals get through. In other words, if after we get our implants, you look at a red object and I see green or hear a C note, it just means the hardware needs to be adjusted by the technician (or needs to self-adjust) until we experience the same thing. Most likely you’d have to do the mental equivalent of staring at a color bar chart to get tuned in as part of the implant process. Otherwise, how do we tell whether we’re experiencing different qualia or just have broken hardware?

    I think you’re right about a “whole brain” device like this being impractical. What seems more useful to me is something like an implanted cell phone that lets me think of a person and get some sort of two way mental communication with them. Speech alone would be cool but some way to transmit vision as well would be really neat. This sort of device has been a staple of science fiction for decades.

  7. 7. Shankar says:

    One possibility is the perception of another person’s senses and thoughts as outlined above. Yet another tantalizing possibility is the merging of the two consciousness into one (similar to what the corpus callosum does in terms of connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain).

    I had conjectured this kind of scenario in my own blog.

  8. 8. dimas says:

    Shankar – where can i find your blog? ;)

  9. 9. Shankar says:

    dimas- here it is – http://qualiaexaminer.blogspot.com/2008/03/integration-problem.html

    You might have to go through my previous posts to make sense of what I am trying to imply in that.

  10. 10. Seth says:

    This post brings a Borges story to mind (what appropriate wording): Shakespeare’s Memory. The narrator becomes severely disoriented and starts to feel his sanity slipping when the memory of the legendary bard invades his consciousness. Ultimately, the story is probably more of a reflection on the self yearning to retain itself, but this is what life is all about, huh? Connections can taste so sweet.

  11. 11. dimas says:

    Btw, what was that wamous Walter Freeman quote about cognitive isolation? never heard it…

  12. 12. Peter says:

    Actually I can’t find a pithy quote, dimas, but the idea of ‘solipsistic isolation’ is one of the key ideas in his book ‘How Brains Make up Their Minds’. Putting together sentences which are widely separated in the original, he says:
    “All that brains can know has been synthesised within themselves, in the form of hypotheses about the world and the outcomes of their own tests of the hypotheses… This is the neurobiological basis for the solipsistic isolation that separates the qualia of each person from the experiences of everyone else… Our isolation provides the gift of privacy but also the curse of loneliness”

  13. 13. dimas says:

    Why, Peter, that’s such a true quote… !!! McGinn also talked in the “Atheism Tapes” about our metaphysical loneliness… do you think that maybe the idea of a God and of other minds in that aspect are related? No one ever conducted studies on it, but I can easily draw parallels…

  14. 14. Gorm says:

    I think all brains connected telepathically would react to this by transforming themselves as rapidly as plasticity allows toward becoming a single huge mind with X sets of eyes and ears and whole bodies available to it. True hive mind.

    Individual minds wouldn’t be retained, but subsumed to a larger entity.

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