Making Star Trek Possible: Mind melding and ESP

Posted by on May 5th, 2009

A five-part series that tries to explain how to make the science of Star Trek real…

Spock's early failures at mind melding

An important part of the Star Trek mythos is the idea of mind-to-mind contact. Spock uses this to probe other people’s minds and even transplant his entire consciousness. Counselor Troi used it to read the feelings of other species. It’s a wonderful concept that has fascinated people since at least the 1800’s. Unfortunately, we’re no closer to it being real now then we were back then.

We can imagine all sorts of technology assisted ways to make this real, but there’s nothing sexy about your Vulcan girlfriend asking you to step into an fMRI so she can read your voxels (okay, maybe a little sexy). What we need are some organic solutions or explanations for brain to brain transmission that make the concept a little more plausible.

Pheromones are chemical signals that animals use to influence one another and convey certain kinds of information like mating availability and even directions. The amount that humans are controlled by them is up for debate. Yet, we know they’re there and we know they have some effect – especially when it comes to reproduction.

At its simplest, a pheromone is a chemical emitted by one animal that tells another animal’s brain (usually via the nose) some piece of information. While individual pheromone’s may not say a whole lot, they may be more complex than Chinese pictographs and capable of communicating more information than our spoken communication.

If an organism could control what pheromones it gave off (like we do sound in speech) and another organism could discern the details (like we do with hearing), a whole new level of non-verbal communication is made possible. This is even more practical than mind viruses (see below) and something you can readily experiment with. We’d love to hear from someone who has built a Wi-Fi system based on scent.

Mind viruses
Information is transmitted from mind to mind all the time without overt forms of communication. Animals that inherit their instincts get their instructions from coding in their DNA. Viruses can jump bits of DNA from one organism to another. Our own DNA is filled with examples of this. Some speculate that up to 50% of the DNA in us was left there by viruses.

If we can all agree that animals (including us) can inherit information (patterns in the brain) that predispose us a certain way and we can agree that viruses can alter our DNA, it’s at least possible for an organism to use DNA as a way to shuttle information back and forth between different brains. So when Spock puts his hands on your face in that Vulcan mind meld of his, he’s really just passing on some mind infection to you.

Who knows how effective of a mode of transmitting information this would be. It might be worse than a fax machine from 1960. Or how well it would work between two different people, let alone two different species from different planets. At least it’s a mechanism that may already be in place to some degree.

When most skeptics approach the idea of telepathy, stock answer number one is how complex the brain is how all our brains are laid out differently. Forgetting for the moment that recent research has shown that we can pinpoint thoughts and decisions much more precisely than we thought; it doesn’t matter how different our brains are. We have parts of our brain dedicated to sorting that out and communicating with the rest of the world. All you need to do is send a request for information to that spot to get your response. Think of a spy on sodium thiopental. This truth serum works (kinda, sort of) because it affects a part of the brain that’s semi-conscious and not self censoring.

Now all we need is a nonverbal, non-chemical way tap into that part of the brain. Maybe it’s already there. Bee’s, sharks, birds and now apparently cows can all sense magnetic fields due to the presence of a magnetic organic compound called magnetite ( In the laboratory we can send signals to the parts of their brains that control their magnetoception and screw up their sense of direction. Studies in humans have been inconclusive yet we apparently have deposits of magnetite in our noses. At some point on our evolutionary path we likely had magnetoception to some degree.

A biologist wanting to give us the ability to read minds needs to first increase our ability to sense magnetic fields (tweaking a gene sequence or two) and then give us a controlled way to transmit. It could be a matter of giving a part of our brain that involves speech control over a muscle or organ (other than our tongue) that can generate really strong EMF waves (stronger than the ones our body already produces). Maybe some eel genes could help. Maybe there’s already coding for that.

The end product is a human that can naturally transmit and receive thoughts through electromagnetic radiation just like a cell phone or a radio – without the need for either.

Check out the rest of the series on making the science of Star Trek possible

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