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Season 2 of Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone starts with a bang, or, more appropriately, a whisper. The premiere episode, "Meet in the Middle," starring Jimmi Simpson and Gillian Jacobs, gives us the story of two individuals separated by hundreds of miles, able to communicate with one another using their thoughts.
It begins as a story of an unconventional connection between two people, before taking a turn for the bizarre, as is expected in The Twilight Zone. Viewers might be forgiven for wondering if the episode’s central character, Phil Hayes (Simpson), is losing his grip on reality, but the episode goes out of its way, throughout, to make clear that, at the very least, the person he’s hearing inside his head actually exists. By the end, there’s no doubt.
There’s little about Hayes’ experience that is desirable, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t seek to discover if it isn’t at least possible.
Could science give us a world filled with intimate conversations and deadly subterfuge delivered direct, inside our minds?
Humanity has a long history of belief in extra-sensory abilities. The term “telepathy” was coined in 1882 by Frederic Myers to describe “all cases of impressions received at a distance without the operation of the recognized sense organs.” In short, being able to perceive things one shouldn't be able to perceive using the five senses. In modern parlance, it’s tantamount to mind-reading, hearing the thoughts of others without the benefit of the sender speaking, or the receiver actually hearing.
Despite the claims of countless individuals, there is, to date, no good scientific evidence for the existence of such an ability. There is, however, a possible explanation. It all comes down to the way we perceive the world. More specifically, the way we perceive one another. Enter: mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons are so named because they activate in the same way both when an individual is completing an action and when they are observing that action. Mirror neurons were first discovered in macaque monkeys being used in a study.
The monkeys had electrodes implanted in their brains and researchers found neurons activating when the monkeys observed humans moving or eating, which usually only activated if the monkey itself was moving or eating.
Later, these same neuron interactions were confirmed in humans by way of electroencephalograms (EEG). Research has shown that these neurons kick into gear when we’re observing other people, and they do so in ways that are strikingly similar to what we would see if the individual were actively completing the action being observed.
The data seems to suggest that these neurons are important for observational learning, but some studies show they might also play a role in empathy. Essentially, certain regions of our brains seem to activate when we’re observing emotional content, as if we are experiencing those emotions ourselves.
While the research is not yet conclusive, it makes sense. It’s likely you’ve experienced an emotional response when watching a movie or reading a story about people you don’t know and aren’t actively involved with, even people who might be fictional. It’s possible that this explains at least some claims of telepathy as we really are capable of sensing how other people are feeling and maybe even to some extent, what they’re thinking.
It isn’t a superpower, it’s just the way our brains work.
That said, when have we ever let nature limit what we’re able to accomplish? If our bodies won’t give us extrasensory perception on their own, maybe we can build it ourselves. And, in fact, that’s exactly what some scientists are trying to do.
Where biology fails us, technology provides.
Telepathy, as described above, is the act of perceiving information outside the use of the ordinary sensory processes. All that’s needed is to devise a way to deliver the silent information from inside one person’s mind to the interpretive systems of another.
If we know anything to be true, it’s that if there is something cool to be done, and the technology exists to achieve it, scientists have already devised a way to make it happen.
Previous studies have been done to interpret the internal signals of the brain into visual images, essentially reading the minds of participants. Individuals are shown images and their brain activity is recorded. Using machine learning algorithms, a computer program is able to recognize which areas of the brain correlate to which images. After a while, the brain activity present when shown an image is able to be interpreted into a reconstruction of that image.
This work is laying the foundation for translating brain activity into data that can be transmitted and interpreted elsewhere. This, however, amounts to a brain-to-computer interface. What we want is brain-to-brain.
This endeavor requires three parts: Interpretation of the brain signals of a sender, a transmission method, and interpretation of that data by a receiver. EEGs, utilized in the identification of mirror neurons above, serve the first purpose. By connecting electrodes to the surface of participants' heads, neural signals are able to be read and interpreted by a computer. Instead of looking at or imagining images, participants thought of words, and the associated brain activity was interpreted by a computer. The transmission method is easy enough; global internet is available to send data across vast distances almost instantaneously. All that’s left is a method by which to deliver that information into the mind of a receiver.
A research team including Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a neurologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and professor at Harvard Medical School, crafted a way to make it work, at least a little.
Using EEG machines, the brain activity of the sender was recorded while they thought of a greeting, either the word “hola” or “ciao.” The brain data was then sent over the internet from India to France, roughly 5,000 miles away.
The receiving participants did not hear the message as auditory stimuli in their brains. Instead, the data was delivered as pulses of light, which they were trained to interpret into words. All of the participants correctly interpreted the greetings.
This is, of course, a ways off from direct communication, hearing a voice inside your head as it’s spoken (or thought) by the person with whom you’re communicating, but it’s an important first step.
This research serves as a proof-of-concept that information can be delivered from one mind to another, even across large distances, and correctly interpreted, without the use of ordinary speech and hearing. This research has important implications for individuals incapable of standard speech, on top of it being immeasurably cool.
Given the adoption of wearable technology and the increasing ubiquity of our digital lives, it isn’t at all outside the realm of possibility that, before long, we’ll dispense with our keyboards and our telephones, and commence to speak directly and privately, mind to mind.
Every day brings us just a little bit closer to... the Twilight Zone.