Can you listen to others’ thoughts?

The first time I came across ‘mind-reading’ in fiction was in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The ‘mentalics’ were able to read minds and hence had no need for spoken words. The idea and thought blew my mind, as good science fiction can often do.

Recently, I stumbled upon ‘listening to thoughts’ in a book titled The Knife of Never Letting Go, published in 2008, written by Patrick Ness. I became aware of the book after watching the trailer for the upcoming movie version, Chaos Walking, starring Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland, with the screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, among others including the book’s author.

Here’s how ‘listening to thoughts’ is described at the beginning of chapter 2. (click on the picture to see the larger version)

The audiobook version that I’m listening to now does this really well, in a kind of audio effect where many voices are speaking at the same time. It is incredibly disorienting.

When you read how this whole phenomenon is described (I’m too early in the book to know more about how or why of it, but those are not the point of this post anyway), here are some of the key facets:

  • he can listen to all the men in his town, in his mind
  • not just words, but also pictures, memories, fantasies from their minds
  • all those other men could listen to each other too
  • men lie even when others can hear all their thoughts
  • they hide their lies under other thoughts so the lies are buried
  • that makes it akin to the men lying to themselves!
  • because men are lying to themselves and burying their own truths under the lies, others cannot pick out the truth from the flood of what’s real and what’s fake

At this point, I paused the audiobook and searched for the book again on Google to confirm the year it was written. It is 2008.

Twitter was launched in 2006, and Facebook went beyond the universities, to the broader public in 2006 too. LinkedIn launched much earlier, in 2002. Orkut and MySpace were around too, in some form. Clearly, it was the early days of social media.

If you remove the ‘listening to thoughts’ or ‘mind-reading’ element, the facets could be an apt description for social media, as we experience it now!!

  • we can read/listen to what others (not just men) are thinking all over the world when they verbalize it on social media platforms
  • not just words, but photos, videos, memories, fantasies, etc.
  • the problem of fake news is people lying
  • we use ‘noise’ to describe the excess social media content we are deluged in
  • people on social media also lie to themselves in order to put up an image and gain social prominence or fame
  • unlike lies getting buried under other thoughts, in social media, the truth could be buried under a mountain of irrelevant information that is tactically unleashed as misdirection!

When I look at the parallels, I thought ‘mind-reading’ is what we have ended up with, not as a fantasy, but as a tool built to harness thoughts! To be sure, what we express on social media is not our innermost thoughts, but while we share on social media, people could also assume our thoughts based on how we express our thoughts in verbalized form, by observing the words and tone we use.

Imagine – if we gained the power to listen to the thoughts of other people in this world right now, it won’t be very different from opening Twitter or Instagram and going through our timeline!

The difference, though, is that in the book, the person (Todd) cannot do anything about the noise, but we, with social media, can be on top of it, if only we think about it purposefully.

PS: There’s an early start to actual mind-reading too, incidentally.

A demo:

So, if computers can ‘listen’ to what we are thinking, and we plug in a computer ourselves not just to share our thoughts with it/talk to it but also to listen to it, and it is connected to the internet, we may not be very far from the day when we can actually listen to each others’ thoughts!



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