Occasionally I have mentioned my dislike for science fiction that has mindswapping, or telepathy, or people having their brains dominated by other people – I’ll call it “mind stuff.” Mind stuff seems to be everywhere. I encountered it while reading Hugo nominees this year, and while reading the latest novel by Stephen King, End of Watch, (although I'm not really going to review End of Watch here, I'll note it's pretty good) and it seems to pop up in more than half the speculative fiction books I read, at least since I’ve been noticing it.
I’ve got an unpublished draft story, which I may pick up again someday, that kind of chronicles the progress of my disillusionment with mind stuff. It was a time travel story, and I came up with the idea of a character who could leap into photographs, taking over the minds of people depicted in them. Plus I gave her a love story to distract her from any meddling ideas like “hey, I can just take over Hitler’s brain and have him jump off a bridge,” or, “what if Marilyn Monroe had actually spent that night at a party surrounded by friends?”
I was trying to be all artistic and literary, fiddling with the idea of a body-swapping love story, with the woman repeatedly appearing to the man in different bodies over a long time span, as he falls in love with her personality, while she’s actually losing touch with her personality due to the experience of inhabiting different bodies.
For instance, maybe Time Traveling Protagonist [“TTP”] leaps into the body of a woman who has migraines? Extreme menstrual cramps? One who is extremely neurodivergent? The list goes on and on, including a number of things that would (a) be drastically different from the brain TTP is accustomed to inhabiting and (b) wouldn’t necessarily show on the outside. Enough to shake her worldview profoundly.
Then I started wondering what happens to the consciousness that’s already inside the body when TTP steps in. Does TTP have access to her memories, or are some of them read-only? Are we talking about some kind of shared link to the body’s owner, or does it go dormant? Can the two of them disagree? Can the owner evict TTP from her mind? What if TTP kisses a boy and original-owner doesn’t want to?
I’ve noticed other writers will devote pages and pages to their personal mind stuff rules – the intruder gets access to all the memories, the intruder fights a battle with the original host, the original host just goes to sleep. I kept writing in circles, trying to come up with my own workable set of rules for this fictional adventure, but I’ve got the kind of mind that insists on pointing out loopholes. It all eventually led me to question why all this mind stuff permeates science fiction and fantasy and horror in the first place.
Especially now that we have phones and we can plug our earbuds into them and walk around all day hearing other peoples’ voices in our heads. We can’t telepathically leap into other peoples’ heads, but we can call them. We can’t telepathically project our dreams into other peoples’ brains, but we can text them a video. We can’t mentally dominate their body and walk around in it, but we can text them, “OMG watch this video right now or I am never speaking to you again” and they’ll probably do it – we might also be able to dominate them into bringing a pizza for a small fee.
This just simply isn’t good enough for most spec fic. Apparently things like microphones and earbuds and cell phone towers ruin the pure and barrier-free notion of telepathy.
There are a lot of time-honored fictional tropes and plot devices that center around mental conditions that seem to work on a sliding scale, only rising to the diagnosable level once they increase to the point where they interfere with daily life. You can wash your hands multiple times a day without having full blown obsessive compulsive disorder. You’re not necessarily being paranoid if you cross the street to avoid some shady-looking stranger. You can be sad without being clinically depressed.
And you can have voices in your head that aren’t telepathic in nature, without even being schizophrenic. Lots of people experience hypnagogia, and have visual and audio hallucinations while falling asleep. I tend to get the one where I hear a voice calling my name.
Sometimes, psych symptoms that are common to some degree can drive plots, such as in Hitchcock movies. Plots like, “are the voices in my head real?” or “am I paranoid or are they really out to get me?” Or how about “is that really a big scary demon as opposed to a spell of sleep paralysis?”
People with neurodivergent statuses like schizophrenia and psychosis can have experiences such as hearing voices or feeling externally controlled. Religious people can have similar experiences, with completely different associated emotions. All these experiences seem to be frustratingly subjective. There’s never any sense of replication potential, as in “stand right here in this corner and you’ll hear a bass voice reciting Italian poetry despite a lack of speakers” or “anyone who picks up this statue gets possessed immediately by the demon Zuul.”
Moreover, there has been a considerable amount of fraud and coercion involving alleged mind stuff throughout the ages, such as cold readers insisting they can talk to your dead relatives for a price, or violent douchebags insisting they were possessed by demons while committing rapes and murders. People have convinced others into believing angels/demons/aliens are telepathically sending them messages about the imminent end of the world, to tragic ends.
Bottom line, mind stuff is the ultimate con. “I’ve got secret subjective access to POWER, and you can’t have any!”
Hard science has made a lot of progress as far as visualizing things that used to be based purely on subjective report, such as migraines, and various neurodivergent states. We can tell someone is dreaming, but we can’t quite push that dream into shareable media. We can implant a mechanical device which will power a cursor upon brain signals, as well as wire prosthetics to communicate directly with the central nervous system. There are probably people in your neighborhood that qualify as cyborgs, with medical implants which regulate things like insulin and pain medication and nerve signals.
I was definitely interested in including all this in my science fictional world, and elaborating on it. To me, the idea of being able to control a mouse cursor via a tiny neural pathway is encouraging, and having a wifi link so I can look up the lyrics to whatever song is playing in my head sounds very convenient. Conceivably I’d also be able to call people that also have implants in their head, and chat with them, and maybe I'd have a speaker that transmits sound up my arm bones instead of a set of earbuds.
However, there still must be an “I”, an ego or consciousness or identity or executive function or whatever you want to call it, to decide what friends to call, and what words to send them, whether to lol or rofl or jajaja in response to what they say. We are all aware that this “I” can be compromised by stress, drugs and rock and roll, and that upon death it ceases contact with its body (and whether it goes on to do anything else has been the subject of much speculation). We fear, and probably justifiably so, that some hacker might crawl into our cyborg cell phones and repeatedly shout “no, you are actually someone else!” until we start to believe it.
Possibly the promised mind stuff will all come true. Lazy students can just think their term papers, without having to type out the cites. People who have always wanted to write a novel but don’t like typing can inject their fantasies directly into your Kindle. Lovers can tell each other “not there, to the left” without actually articulating it. Jealous and controlling people can rage at their loved ones for not thinking about them enough. Bosses can make sure you’re pondering the spreadsheet on your screen and not your weekend plans.
But the more I read, the more I found myself shifting away from ideas of bodies hosting ghosts. I linked an article earlier about how everyone localizes differently within the brain. The physical sector that controls one individual’s childhood memories might host another person’s math skills, and the location of the “I” varies depending on the individual. If I were writing about my TTP now, I might have her blundering around in an unfamiliar brain, aiming for “perky” and hitting “anxious” instead. Or maybe she’d localize consciousness in a different brain region, which means she wouldn’t be temporarily overwriting the body’s host, and could coexist with the resident consciousness.
Stories are always talking about the resident consciousness having to “fight” with their invader … is this maybe some kind of grandiose board game like Go or Checkers with synapses at stake? It’s always written more like a wrestling match, complete with sweating and grunting.
Do we have any credible evidence that anyone, anywhere, has experienced mind stuff in real life? Nope. The James Randi Educational Foundation offers a million dollar reward for evidence of paranormal powers; nobody has ever qualified. Spies worked diligently on nailing mind stuff during the Cold War, no results. From my personal anecdotal evidence hanging out with some of the weirder aspects of Northern California, there are definitely people who can say things like “oh, I’ll bet that’s George” when the phone rings, and it turns out to be George! Or maybe they’ll take their umbrella to work even though it’s not raining and then at rush hour the sky unleashes a downpour! But as far as people transmitting complex thoughts to each other without electronics, it hasn't happened, or it would be all over the internet.
And therefore, with regard to telepathy, body swapping, and psionic powers of all types, I don’t believe in them and I can’t even write about them without turning into Nancy Drew, Loophole Detective.
I decided that as far as my story was concerned, mind stuff didn’t exist. In its place is a system where flesh and thought fit together like a lock and a key. This had a surprising ripple effect on other aspects of my story. No quasi-mystical references to reincarnation. No telepathic clones. No soulless villains, no programmed henchmen, no ghosts in machines, no body-mind duality. None of that. Minds and bodies are symbiotes as far as I’m concerned.
I note that mind stuff, when depicted in comics and movies, frequently is performed with clenched teeth, accompanied by sweating and straining. Since most people don’t do that when having a conversation on their mobile phones, it’s apparent that maybe there’s a sexual metaphor happening, and that mind stuff is a stand in for intimacy, and for dominance/submission games. And maybe it’s one of those sexual metaphors that makes me, personally, say, “what? People are attracted to that? That’s the most twisted thing I’ve ever heard! Gaaaaaah!”
I think I’m a little more tolerant toward mind stuff in fantasy and horror, in which it’s a foregone conclusion that magic exists. When it pops up in science fiction, and real-time thrillers like Stephen King’s End of Watch (it’s present in the rest of the series but much lighter), I cringe a little. I can handle it on TV shows, where it’s mainly a device to showcase how adept the actors are at impersonating each other.
If I ever end up salvaging that time-traveling protagonist story, it’ll probably turn out to be a dialogue between TTP’s consciousness and the consciousness of the girl she’s trying to invade.
Original: “So in 2016 have the scientists figured out telepathy yet?”
TTP: “Well, no. But they have these things called smart phones, and you can just call people and walk around talking to them on your, um, computerized earring. And you can also talk to the robot that lives in your phone and get it to dial people. But your words still have to pass between your brain’s speech center and your lips if you want them to come out.”
Original (pouting): “You can’t just talk to people directly with your brain? What’s the fun in that?”