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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

The Chosen Rosen: Disinclined to read minds

Published: March 18, 2011
Section: Opinions

Everyone fantasizes about being able to read minds. After all, you would know the answer to every question your professor asked before he asked it. You no longer would have to squander away countless hours playing the “guess what I’m thinking game.” And any time someone asked you what they had for dinner last night, you would know the answer. You would impress all your friends, you would win over guys/girls and you wouldn’t have to waste all that time guessing. aPlus you’d be pretty darn good at poker. Telepathy would be great.

But you can keep dreaming. Unless the tooth fairy turns into the thought fairy and plants superhuman abilities under our pillows (I’d still rather have money!), mind-reading probably isn’t in our future. But with the rate at which technology is improving, we’re not that far away from something close to telepathy. According to Pittsburgh Intel, software that uses brain scans to determine what items people are thinking about was showcased by Intel Corporation last week. The software analyzes fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans to determine which part of a person’s brain is being activated as he thinks. According to Intel Labs, researcher Dean Pomerlau—in tests—was able to guess with 90 percent accuracy which of two words a person was contemplating. So no, we cannot read one another’s minds yet but with the assistance of new-age technology, we can come pretty close.

Imagine the doors that mind-reading could open; imagine what life would be like. You could have an entire two-hour phone conversation with your friend without ever having to say a word. You could walk into a McDonalds and order a Snack Wrap (honey mustard, not ranch) without ever moving your lips. You could make a joke to your friend telepathically and intercept his mind’s giggles in response.

But as fun as that world seems, it would get old pretty quickly. Eventually, you would get sick of reading minds and you would want to go back to listening to people. And your mind would hurt from straining itself too much. Talk about a migraine!

I mean, telepathy is cool in theory but, in reality, if you had the power to read minds, you would want to rid yourself of it immediately. Human beings were not made to be telepathic; God gave us mouths for a reason. What would happen to face-to-face communication with telepathy? It would cease to exist. You would no longer have to listen intently to people’s words to figure out what they were thinking—you could just read their minds. You would no longer have to study people’s body language to see how they feel—you could just read their minds. Conventional communication would be seriously damaged by telepathy.

Another thing is that our thoughts don’t always reflect our feelings. Streams of consciousness are irrational and to make sense of them would be foolish. Think about it: if someone wanted to get to know you, would your internal thoughts really be a good indication of who you are as a person? I mean, personally, I’m constantly thinking about energetic squirrels (like Hammy from “Over the Hedge”) and talking trees. Yes, my head is a pretty scary place. But for someone to get to know me, taking a tour of my subconscious would not suffice.

The same thing is true for other people, too. Reading their minds isn’t always going to tell you anything about them as people. When someone invites you to a party, you say: “I’d love to!” But you think: “Well, I have a paper due in two days that I haven’t started so I really shouldn’t go out tonight but I want to go crazy because it’s a weekend and everyone put on their Facebook statuses that they’re going out and I don’t want to be the only one with no life. Then again, John might be there and I really don’t feel like seeing him but I can always avoid him and but what if he sees me—I can’t risk that—I just won’t go. OK, I’ll go.” This is what you think, but this is not what you say (if you talked in streams of consciousness like this, you’d lose your breath pretty often!). We don’t think in defined sentences and coherent thoughts. We think like we dream—out of order and in muddled bits and pieces. When we process it and say it aloud, it makes sense, but in our head it is utterly senseless.

Another thing is that not all of our thoughts are worth hearing. If I had the power to read minds and I browsed through the minds of the 120 students in my Intro to Politics class, I would hear: “I wonder if those shoes come in a size 7!” And “man I’m hungry! What am I going to get for lunch today at Usdan? I forgot—it’s Brandeis … crap in a to-go box as usual. FML!” And “if I don’t get A’s on every test in every class that I ever take, I will not have any success whatsoever. Ah, focus!” And then there would of course be that kid in the back row, pondering the great mysteries of life: “how come you cook bacon but you bake cookies? And why do you park in the driveway and drive on the parkway?”

Not everything we think is worth communicating to others, that is why we have mouths (try telling that to Paris Hilton). Our mouths are censors, keeping all of our thoughts from escaping into the world. Think about it, throughout the course of a five-minute conversation with a friend, how many of your thoughts do you actually say out loud? Now imagine saying everything that crosses your mind out loud in the midst of a conversation with a friend. Pretty scary, huh?

And then of course, there’s the Republican stance on telepathy: the idea that mind-reading is an invasion of privacy. Your thoughts are meant for you alone. The head is a sacred place where we sort through our issues and where we can talk to ourselves without fear of judgment. We can make bad jokes that nobody can hear. We can insult friends and say things in response that we could never say in person. We can scream as loud as we can in our heads to blow off steam and who would want to hear that? But if someone had mind-reading abilities, you would have to change your entire thought process in order to make it socially acceptable. Just like Winston in “1984,” you’d need to be on constant alert for the “Thought Police.” You would have nowhere to run or hide. And you would probably go crazy trying. Or get electrocuted and reduced to a shell of the person you once were, then let back into society as a mindless automaton. Just like Winston.

Another thing is that, let’s face it, most of us are pretty cruel in our own heads. Sure, we may say: “Good job on that paper, Jared!” But in our heads, we are really boiling with envy. This is because of our innately selfish human nature. And so, mind-reading would lead everyone to hear each other’s negative thoughts about each other. Your lips may be saying; “Cute skirt!” But your thoughts are saying: “Who does she think she is dressing like that? A stripper?” If everyone had access to these thoughts, we would all end up hating each other.

And frankly, life is about the journey, not the destination. Learning how someone thinks is a part of getting to know them. Telepathy would just let you know their thoughts and you would have no need to get to know them. Within a moment of meeting someone, you could know them so well you could finish their sentences. Relationships would become utterly meaningless.

I mean, let’s be honest—it would be pretty ridiculous to be able to read minds like the Time Lords or the Jedi. But telepathy isn’t all sprinkles and confetti. Oftentimes in pop culture, when a fictional character gets telepathy, it ends badly. When Buffy from “Buffy: the Vampire Slayer” became telepathic, she eventually went mad from all the voices in her head. I mean, could you deal with walking up and down the Brandeis campus and hearing the thoughts of hundreds of your peers at the same time? I sure couldn’t. And I wouldn’t want to either.

So take a moment and think. And enjoy the solitude. After all, you’re the only one with access to your mind. For now.