Wednesday, April 7, 2021

But what about telepathic communication? [more on the incoherence of brain2brain thought transfer]

Think of this as a pendant on and further exploration of my ongoing discussion of the incoherence of the idea of direct brain-to-brain thought transfer.

I’ve been watching Start Trek: Enterprise. There’s an episode in season 4, #14 The Aenar, where we meet a species capabable of telepathic communication with one another. That seems to be a minor theme in the Star Trek universe. Of course we have the Vulcan Mind Meld, which made its appearance with Spock in the original series and shows up a few time in Enterprise, but it seems to be assymetric; the party who initiates the meld can read the other’s mind, and even place thoughts in it, but not vice versa. Then we have the telepatic conversations between Deanna Troi and her mother in The Next Generation.

These conversations are presented to us as that, verbal interchanges; except that the parties don’t move their lips and may not even be in one another’s presence. The voices are simply in voiceover; we are to understand that no one hears anything, that this is telepathic?

Is that how telepathy would work? I’m not suggesting that the makes of these programs are seriously proposing telepathic communication as a human possibility any more than they are proposing warp drive of subspace communication as serious possibities. It’s pure fiction, not a real (in some way or other) proposal such as those Llinás, Koch, and Musk (seem to) have made about brain-to-brain communication. If telepathy were possible, is this how it would go, silent conversation? After all, there are silent conversations taking place all around us on cell phones and the like. We don’t hear them because they’re being carried by radio waves, which we cannot hear. Would that be possible with telepathic waves?

My first reaction – and this is important – upon posing the question (last night) is, sure. There’d have to be some physical means of sending and receiving telepathic waves but, given then, such silent conversation would be possible. After I’d thought about that for awhile, though, I began reconsidering.

Just what signal is being sent and received? The waves that make up real conversation arise when we send neural impulses to various muscles – in the tongue, jaw, truck, etc. – to drive vocalization. They are then picked up in the ear, which transduces them into neural impulses. But none of that would happen in the hypothesized telepathic communication. What gets telepathically broadcast? Perhaps the motor impulses. How would the other party interpret them, with the auditory cortex? Maybe what gets sent and received is some modally neutral signal, neither motor nor auditory? But of course, if telepathic communication were real, brains and nervous systems would have evolved accordingly. In addition to motoric sending and auditory receiving, there’d be telepathic sending and receiving.

What is it that would be telephatically send and received? Would it be telepathic word forms, that is signifiers, or would the actual meanings be sent (the signifieds)? I think it would have to be the signifiers, and only the signifieds. Why, because word meanings aren’t going to be neat little informatic packets like word forms. That is, the existence of words as discrete entities invites us to believe that word meaning are gathered up in discrete packets of meaning. But there is no reason [that is, beyond our desire that things be so simple] to think things work like that.

Rather word meanings reside in neural nets where the meaning is a function of relationships in the net. Word meaning is not separable from the net itself. That, alas, is not something that is easily explained in a blog post or, for that matter, at all. At this point I think you have to actively work with semantic or cognitve network models to get a sense of what’s going on. Sydney Lamb exaplains that in Pathways to the Brain (1999) and I say a bit more in my post, 2. The brain, the mind, and GPT-3: Dimensions and conceptual spaces (August 2, 2020).]

As a crude analogy, imagine a pond as the repository of meaning. Word forms (signifiers) are pebbles dropped into the pond. When a pebble hits the pond’s surface ripples travel outward from the point. As successive pebbles hit the service each of them sends ripples as well and the ripples interact with one another. It’s those interactions of the ripples that embodies the meaning of the word stream (that is, the succession of pebbles).

At this point we seem to have lost the thread of our original inquiry, about telepathic communication. That’s how it goes. Thinking these things through is tough and you cannot predict where things will go.

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