Unit 2: Future of the Mind – Telepathy context / research / my work

One of the things that captivated me following the initial group ideation session we had around Futures, was the notion that technology could progress such that not only human-computer mental interfacing was possible, but human-human, i.e. telepathy (the communication of ideas/thoughts by means other than the senses).

The idea of telepathy first caught on in western culture in the 19th century, following on from the spread of spiritualism (communing with the spirit realm/the dead) and animal magnetism/mesmerism (whereby healing can occur via induced trances and hypnotism). These pseudosciences caught on in response to the fantastical advances in science that were making the world at once more understood and more mysterious. Why should we only trust our senses if there are microscopic cells (with cell theory – that we are made up of cells – only being formulated in 1839), and if time can be relative (theory of relativity in 1905).

Hilma af Klint was interested in spiritualism, and can also be credited with the first abstract art – exploring automatic drawing in attempts to visualise this non-visible reality. I encountered some of her sketches in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and enjoyed how naive and free they seemed, some of which are below. The nesting and interaction of colourful organic forms, and looping, swooping lines also appeal.

Magicians then, using biological cues, performed ‘thought reading’ stunts, which still continue to this day. Indeed, much of the trends seen in the 19th century reared their heads again during the New Age in the 1970s, e.g. the idea of ‘channelling’ spirits or the collective unconscious via trances to gain new information. This took a strange turn as documented in the book and film adaptation of The Men Who Stare at Goats, with the American military hoping to harness the power of psychic agents for intelligence-gathering (and also, bizarrely, attempting to harm or kill psychically)

This idea of psychic ability being used as a weapon or military advantage is also explored in fiction, e.g. in Star Trek with the Vulcan mind meld appearing in it’s first season, and then later too with empaths such as Betazoids and the hive mind of the Borg. The notion of ‘hacking’ or mind control of another by means of such interfacing is a central theme of fiction such as Ghost in the Shell. This relies too on the notion of interconnected technological knowledge and AI systems within a ‘cyberspace’ – a concept conceived before the internet by William Gibson in his Neuromancer novel, but now a term used to refer to it.

But for me, I am interested in the consequences of such technology. If we were able to communicate telepathically, would this make language redundant? Would we lose language, particularly in our more intimate relationships? This could be a means in which telepathy could be a force for good, and answering a central human desire to be understood – enabling us to fully intimately understand and know our romantic partners and significant others. But what might be lost from our current relationships, and would this be a destructive or positive change?

There is a unique mode of communication already in existence between romantic partners, a secret language you only use within that context – formed of in-jokes, pet names, and particular phrases or patterns of speech that you build together. In a world where you could communicate without language, this would be defunct. I explored some ideas for how we could record these future dead languages, to house in future museums.

Below is a work I encountered in an exhibition at the Whitechapel gallery, curated to explore a post-language society (here conceived as a post-apocalyptic eventuality). The work below explores communication through a personal visual language, which are curious, but I’m unsure if they truly communicate (though perhaps they are recognisable to a native spanish speaker!) – it’s intriguing to see here again colourful, somewhat organic forms appearing.

Returning to my idea… The thought that these languages would be shared, which previously have been intimate and private between two people, is intriguing but one which made me feel unsure I could in good conscience ask people to share with me openly. This is interesting in itself, that I would hesitate to do so. That making open and shareable something entirely private is similar to this notion of sharing our inner most thoughts with others via telepathy. It is certainly an uneasy future being imagined.

What then could be more private than our own sense of self, our inner eye. What might it mean for our perceptions of self, if we can be fully aware of how others perceive us, and view ourselves through their eyes? Would this exacerbate or destroy the current situation of ‘selfie culture’ – whereby we feel pressured to curate our online image to the extent that our bodies, our lives appear perfectly manicured (whether doctored through photoshop or filters or not), and the comparison of ourselves to the online image of others is damaging to our mental health. The obsession with picturing ourselves in any and all situations can be seen as narcissistic and superficial, but it reveals our humanity too. Our desire to understand ourselves, to fit in and be understood by others. To mark our place in the world, and confirm yes I do exist. But this conflict between our inner world and how we appear externally is hard to process – and body dysmorphia and eating disorders are on the rise.

Experiment with a selfie feedback loop using the webcam on my computer and my phone

I very rarely take selfies of myself. My profile picture for several years on Facebook has me in sunglasses that obscure much of my face. This is not out of a particular desire to be unknown, or undocumented. I admittedly do see flaws in my appearance, and suffer that horror when you accidentally have the camera facing the wrong way when you turn it on on your phone. So I never spontaneously feel the urge to do so – to take a selfie feels contrived for me, though I understand it can be different for others! I was interested then to explore this possibility, of the complete knowledge of my appearance to others, and engage in a process that exposed me more than I would usually be comfortable. To invade my own privacy.

To do so, I recorded my appearance in a typical evening at home with my fiance. By attaching a head-mounted GoPro to him, I hoped to approximate his point of view and gain this notion of the self-image through someone else’s eyes. Below, I edited together only those moments when I was in frame. It provides a disjointed account of the time spent making dinner, and the conversation appears surreal.

The camera angle feels like I am floating above myself – as though in an outer-body-experience – which I suppose this is! It is disorienting how it jerks around according to his head movements.

Future Self-Portrait

It is uncomfortable seeing so much of myself in a video, to see less than flattering angles and lighting. Much like the confusion when hearing your voice on a recording (how it never sounds quite as you hear it in your own head), it seemed strange to see my idiosyncrasies – mannerisms and facial expressions – played out in front of me. I feel vulnerable in particular when seeing how my eyes remain closed sometimes when talking – something I am unaware of doing in the moment. Also – I seem so short! In all I think this was a successful experiment.

Unit 2: Future of the Mind – the problem

Descartes famously concluded that ‘I think therefore I am’, taking the conscious experience as the one certainty that could prove existence against the reduction of scepticism. So if we can know anything, it is that we have a consciousness. But the hard problem of consciousness remains, in understanding how it is that our consciousness arises from the reality that we perceive. How is the conscious mind related to the brain, and brain activity? Importantly, how might they be causally related, such that the actions I take have been consciously intended, or not (do I have free will and can I be held responsible for my actions)?

Some argue that the physical world can be fully explained in terms of cause and effect without recourse to this conscious intention, and that in this way all future actions have been determined by events that have already happened and continue to happen. There is even a study that is seen to prove this out, whereby we can observe the brain preparing to act in a certain way prior to the person themselves being conscious of making that decision. In this way, it could be argued that my consciousness is merely a resultant effect or a post-rationalisation of what is occurring due to this causal chain, and that our consciousness is more like an observer than a director of events.

Alternatively, it could be argued that in fact, while we can be sure of our consciousness existing, we cannot be certain of much else. The existence of physical reality as we perceive it is dubious, since our senses are fallible (and indeed can be manipulated), and can be subject to delusion and hallucination, but we have no means of experiencing the world without them.

I recently came upon this interview with a cognitive neuroscientist which convincingly discusses this problem, and how we can best describe our ‘visualisation’ of the world by use of the metaphor of a simplified computer interface (i.e. that the icons and actions as perceived by us bear little relation to the actual complex mechanics of what is occurring within the computer system) which has been advantageous to our survival and so ‘designed’ through the process of evolution. I have not before heard someone so succinctly define the problem in assuming our understanding of space and time is fundamental to the world itself, and not merely fundamental to our own interpretation of it.

For me, this highlights a key problem for the individual, that considering the constraints of our perception, we cannot fully understand ourselves or other agents in the world, let alone the world outside. It speaks to an innate paradox within us, that a fundamental desire is for us to be truly known and understood by others, but we cannot even truly know or understand ourselves. That the ‘individual’ is in fact made up of countless consciousnesses that somehow combine to create our singular experience, is fascinating. Reality seems more surreal than ever!

Hoffman argues we should still take seriously our perceptions of the world, since they have evolved for a reason to enable our survival, but not necessarily take them literally, is I think where we can find the place for art and creativity. By utilising an unconventional way of thinking and problem solving, and by using and abusing the visual language and metaphors of convention, to provoke others to think and see things differently, art might have a unique ability to help us break out of the constraints of perception, at least for an instant. Though cynically we could say that it is just as constrained as anything else. It could be interesting to explore sensory deprivation, or more around automatic art to try and access the consciousness outside perceptions of the external world.

In future, is it possible that we might fully understand the connection between our physical reality and consciousness? If so, this for me implies that we would be able to break out of our current constraints of knowability, and for instance be able to communicate directly between consciousnesses – i.e. something like telepathy. This could be a very different future, one which might be ‘post-language’, and where many of the conventions we use now to try and approximate communicating our inner experience would become defunct (e.g. facial expression, gesture).