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I recently made an interesting discovery on Amazon.com.  When I search the kindle store fiction section for “telepathy” amazon returns 377 ebooks, while a search for “mind reading” only gives me 91.  Although I think the difference in search results may have more to do with publishers’ keyword choices than the actual content of the books, this experiment made me think about the differences between telepathy and mind reading as understood in science fiction and fantasy.

The basic idea of telepathy is that somehow people are communicating using their minds alone.  For example, if you thought you wanted a piece of cake but hadn’t told anybody, written the thought down, or actually tried to get yourself a piece of cake yet, but somehow I knew, without any type of physical evidence, that you wanted a piece of cake, we would have had a telepathic interaction of some kind.

We ourselves live in a world where telepathy is generally believed to be impossible.  A thought happens in one persons head, and another thought happens in someone else’s head, and although they can each guess the other persons thoughts based on behavior, there’s no way for either of them to know for certain anybody else’s thoughts but their own.  This gives fiction writers multiple options when inventing a story world in which people can communicate through their thoughts.  In some stories, characters can channel their thoughts in such a way that one or more other people are aware of them; that is, the sender controls the telepathy.  This is what I generally think of when I first learn about a “telepathic” character, someone who is actively pushing their thoughts into other people’s minds.

However, when I think of a “mind reading” character, I automatically know a specific kind of telepathy is involved in this case: telepathy controlled by the recipient.    This kind of telepathy is completely different from the other kind, because the first kind asks readers to imagine a world in which some people can “send out” their thoughts to others if they want, while “mind reading” asks them to imagine a world in which everybody is already somehow sending out their thoughts, but perhaps only certain people are picking up the signal.  So, although they’re both looped under the general name telepathy, thought-sending and mind-reading are as different from each other as speaking and hearing in real life.  If I traveled to a planet where all the inhabitants could read my mind but not one another’s, they would consider ME to be the telepathic one (as a thought sender) while I would consider THEM to be telepathic instead (as mind readers).

Unfortunately, because people in general sometimes don’t think about the differences between these two abilities, sometimes telepathy in stories isn’t very well thought out.  You’ll have a society full of normal people with supposedly no telepathic abilities, and then the telepaths, who can hear the thoughts of the non-telepaths and send specific thoughts directly to the non-telepaths as well.  Basically, they control ALL the thought communication, both ways.

That’s really cool to read about, because the telepath gets to experience a lot of people’s ultimate wish fulfillment while the other characters experience the nightmare of being completely unable to control their communication with someone else.  But the existence of a character with both of the telepathic powers makes for a very confusing story universe, if you think about it, because it means that ALL characters in the story are telepathic thought senders, to the extent that at least the telepaths can sense some of their thoughts.  But, they’re also all mind readers to the extent that if the telepath really wants them to hear a thought, they can.

So basically, everybody is a telepathic, in both the ways I mentioned, but only some people know how to use their powers.  A well thought out telepathy enabling universe with instances of both active though sending and mind reading hints at this fact, while a poorly thought out universe simply sorts the people into telepaths and non-telepaths and leave it at that.

Vulcan (Star Trek)

Vulcan (Star Trek) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One story that handles two way telepathy well is Enchantress From the Stars, by Sylvia Engdahl, where telepathy is an inherent ability in everybody that humans become aware of as their cultures evolve.  One story universe that does not explain this well is the Star Trek universe, where Vulcans are “telepathic” sometimes sending thoughts or feelings to humans and other times probing them, but normal humans are not telepathic.

This was a musing on one of the many complexities surrounding stories involving telepathy.  These stories present other world building problems as well such as how the telepaths distinguish private vs. public thoughts, not to mention how the writer distinguishes them on the page, and how close two people have to be to have a telepathic interaction at all.  I may post about these as well later.  In the meantime, what are your favorite telepathic or mind reading stories?  Your least favorite?  The most confusing?