Superhero Puzzle #9 — How does Prof Xavier’s Mind Work?

Hope y’all enjoy this one. It’s a bit more philosophical than other superhero puzzles.

First, here’s a tiny amount of non-fiction: one of the best books you can currently read on “How the Mind Works” is titled How the Mind Works. It’s written by the linguist and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker. It’s a great book, so read it! But sadly it will not tell you a single thing about how human beings can think thoughts. It’s about brain and psychology, not about thinking and g=cognition. The difference is crucial to understand if you want to be a scientist who specializes in psychology and related fields. The brain’s workings are almost purely physical, involving neural systems and impulses received to and from sensory organs. And at a high level of connection the human brain exhibits psychological traits, such as emotions, neurosis, language, mathematical skill and so forth.

But thinking, the thoughts that cross your mind, the mind, sentient consciousness, all these subjective states of human existence are not touched upon at all by Pinker’s opus. So it is really a book on how the brain works, although at a very high level of neurology and psychology. But it has nothing to do with the mind. The mind is that subjective aspect of thinking and consciousness. The mind cannot easily be studied scientifically because there is no firm definition of mental phenomena, precisely because by auxiliary definitions these phenomena (thoughts, ideas, abstractions) are entirely abstract and non-physical. They exist for each of us only as subjective qualia, not as objectively tangible objects that we can point to or touch or see or smell. Just to be perfectly clear, the brain waves revealed by electro-encephelographs and CT scans of neural activity are objective physical things, so they are not mental events. They are physical events that are merely correlated with your subjective perceptions. In philosophy the subjective content of minds are the things that cannot be physically communicated, and they are termed “qualia”, or plural “qualé”, they are things like the actual “redness” of things coloured red, the “greeness” of things coloured by green light, the “blueness” of blue coloured pills, the raw searing thing you feel when in pain, the raw qualitative feeling of flavours in food and odours, the inner knowledge of te reality of physical impossibilities like the existence of a perfect circle or transcendental numbers like π.

These ideas are fairly important for a rational discussion of the completely fantastical and irrational phenomenon involved in superhero and scifi stories about telepathic and telekinetic superpowers. These are tow very different superpowers. Telekinesis is the power to move physical objects with the mind or brain. Telepathy is the power to read or perceive in some way, the thoughts of other people, or the power to “get inside their mind” to manipulate their thoughts or project illusions into their minds.

This article is about telepathy. Telekinesis will be discussed in another Superhero Puzzle article.

Who is your favourite telepath? I don’t have one, though I quite like the character Psylocke (Elizabeth “Betsy” Braddock). She uses ”psi-waves“, which in one story were shown to be pretty darn powerful, Betsy was tricked by the Shadow King into producing a psi-wave removing all mutant telepathy and allowing him to control every mind on Earth. Often telepathy and telekinesis are linked. For instance, in a foolish mistake, the Shadow King expanded his powers dangerously allowing his personal nexus to be exposed. Betsy defeated Farouk, sacrificing her telepathy to keep him trapped within her astral shadow form. Jean Grey attempted to help Betsy regain her powers safely. But in the process, she gained vast telekinetic abilities instead.

Psylocke, Elizabeth Braddock.

The awesome Psylocke, Elizabeth Braddock. (She’s British!)

The shadow King’s psionic nexus is an interesting concept dreamed up by Marvel writers. I think I can make use of it in the discussion of realistic science behind telepathy and telekinesis.

Psionic Nexus

The Marvel mythology states that,

“The Shadow King is allegedly a multiversal manifestation of the dark side of the human consciousnesses, spawned by the first nightmare. When the mutant Amahl Farouk power developed, Farouk psychically controlled those around him, feeding on the shadows in their souls and secretly merging with the Shadow King, who had been transferring from host to host since the dawn of humanity.”

The psionic nexus is the subspace of the psychic realm where the Shadow King merges all the darkness in human consciousness. the “psychic realm” is of course all the thoughts and feeling of sentient beings. Sometimes this realm is accessed only in real time, but other telepaths can enter it with their mind to explore memory, and sometimes the future. How? The future of human memory, that’s how. This is conceivable if we suppose physical time-evolution is only loosely linked to physical time. And as we will see, since the physical and the psychic can be considered to be distinct aspects of reality, this is all fairly plausible, although more in the domain of speculative philosophy than empirical science.

This is really fascinating for comic book geeks. You see, this psionic nexus idea links-in nicely to the philosophy of abstract realism which I will explain below when i get to the section on Mind–Brain interaction and then some pseudo-science behind telepathy.

Other Telepaths and Related Characters

When I was a teenager I liked The Vision (the good-guy android son of ultrabad android Ultron), whose superpower is density alteration, but he also has heat beams from his eyes, hence his name, and so naturally I liked Vision’s lover, Wanda Maximoff. Although she did not have telepathy, she had “probability altering” power, which was funky because it was not entirely predictable.

Another true telepath is Emma Frost, another X-Mutant. But here powers are strangely coupled, she can make her body as hard as diamond, and hence impermeable to bullets and (oddly) shock resistant, go figure that one! But when she does the diamond form she cannot use her telepathy, and vice versa. So somehow here body structural morphism is coupled to her telepathic powers, so one turns off the other.

But I guess the most famous telepath in comic literature is Professor Charles Xavier, aka. Professor X, founder of the X-Men Academy, the school for superhero mutants. Xavier teams up with “The Beast”, Hank McCoy, who is a brilliant scientist, a genius in fact. They build a device called Cerebro, which amplifies Xavier’s telepathic powers, and in addition enables him to locate the position of any mutant human on Earth. Quite a handy machine if you mission is to save fellow mutants form harm and foster young mutants who have been neglected by society, which indeed is Xavier’s self-imposed mission in life.

Charles Xavier (Professor X)

Professor Xavier, he’s confined to a wheelchair since he is only telepathic, not telekinetic.

Xavier’s most gifted student is Jean Gray, a “level 10” mutant (which means “totally off the superpower scale”, in other words, the limit of her power is so great that it is unknown). Jean can not only read minds, she can implant thoughts and memories and false reality into another person’s consciousness, indelibly altering their brain. Puzzle: why would I claim this?

Jean Gray (alias, the Phoenix) also has telekinetic ability, her mind is so powerful at can span vats distances and move physical objects. The puzzle for today is to provide a plausible scientific explanation or mythology for the powers of people like Xavier and Gray.

Jean Grey, The Phoenix

Jean Grey, aka The Phoenix. a “Level 10” mutant.

There are a few other interesting telepathic characters, but I won’t list them all here. No doubt I’ll find occasion to write about them in other contexts.

Brain and Mind Interaction

It is a mystery to current science how the brain and mind interact. Some scientists believe fully that the brain’s neural activity gives rise to the emergence of mind. But many deeper thinking philosophers tend to argue that the Mind is more fundamental and it is what influences the brain. So there is a totally unknown science here, and possibly a forever unknowable mystery, because the mind cannot really be studied scientifically, at least not fully, because it is not an objective phenomenon.

It’s important for the scifi to understand this clearly. You are free to define the Mind as merely equivalent and identical to the patterns of brain activity which occur when a human (or other sentient creature) experiences qualia. But please try to understand that that would not be my definition. You might as well give that definition of “mind” a completely different word, like “superbrain” or “memon” or whatever. It is certainly not what I mean by the word “mind”. At one level this is mere vocabulary and semantics. But it makes a big difference to a discussion!

So for me, “mind” is equivalent only to the nonphysical aspects of mental impressions, in other words, mind is the purely subjective content of consciousness. It correlates with objective physical brain states, but only in a statistical manner. And there is no logical way in which an objective physical pattern of activity can give rise to emergence of subjective qualia. It just cannot happen. Having objective reality originate subjective reality would be like having a tiny droplet of water spontaneously turn into a fire-breathing dragon, or probably even more illogical and unlikely, perhaps more like a politician who hates people and will do anything possible to offend as many people as they can at all times, or like an astronomer who does not believe in the existence of stars, or a stock-broker who has a deep phobia about making money, or a … well, … I’m sure you get the idea.

My point is that if there is no reality to the nonphysical aspects of sentient thought, then there is no such thing as mind by my definition. And I’m happy with this, because I’d rather have a clear-cut definition of something that might not be real than a sloppy confused definition of an entirely superfluous notion. The idea and alternative definition whereby mind is equated with physical patterns in a brain is bogus because it adds nothing truly new or important, it is merely a new label for a special bunch of neural patterns. And it is not what I wish to discuss in this scifi puzzle.

And since we are discussing scifi here, we can take the reasonable supposition for our superhero mythology, that Mind and Brain have a strong interaction and feedback. This is the main thesis behind telepathy and telekinesis. There has to be a strong Mind–Brain interaction. The brain states (which are neurological and biological) influence mental states (which are subjective qualia). But how? Let’s delay the answer to this for a few paragraphs. Have a think about it and read on.

So if you can alter the brain activity of a person then you can, in principle, influence their thinking because you will be able to imprint sensory information upon their short or long term memory. This is easy to understand, provided you do have, (1) the ability to control the electrochemical activity of a person’s brain, and (2) the supposition that Brain states feed and trigger qualia in Mind.

The ability to influence brain activity is not science fiction, it is medically possible, and has been demonstrated in published research. It’s a bit freaky, but giving a person “fictional” sensations is entirely possible. But it begs the question of whether the sensations are really fictional or not! Obviously, to the person who’s brain is being messed with, the experiences are not fiction, they are totally real, and you can see this in the way their brain responds to the stimulus of the neurologist. Such experiments of course are highly controlled and are done only with the permission of the patients, or sometimes occur under controlled conditions but accidentally during brain surgery such as removal of brain tumours.

The Telepathy Mechanism

The main response to this puzzle that I had was that there is no mechanism. Not a conventional one. At first you seek a physical explanation, because even in comic fantasy a good physics explanation is always the most satisfying. But the usual forces of nature will not work in the case of telepathy, because the spatial extent of forces is not sufficient for strong teleapathy, and Xavier and Jean Gray are telepathic over vast distances, and with Cerebro they basically can cover the whole planet Earth. So an explanation using one brain’s electromagnetic influence on another, no matter how intricate, is simply not going to pass mustard, because the physical effects are far too weak to be believable. But I will mention one loop-hole that is worth discussing at another time.

The loop-hole would be that telepaths have reserves of energy which allow their brains to have neurological influence over distances that surpass normal laws of physics. The idea here is that scifi telepathy does not have to alter the known laws of physics too much, it just has to require that telepaths have a unique ability to extend control over brain processes that in some way jump across vast distances in space. So you need to invent some mechanism whereby telepaths can, in effect, merge their brain impulses with another human, targeting them across reasonable spans of space. And how would this be possible (in closest plausible science terms)?

Have a think about that, it’s another puzzle. How to extend the spatial reach of brain wave interference, et cetera.

Today I want to explore a different mode of telepathy. And don’t forget, it’s cool to have similar superpowers which originate from quit different modes. Superman’s strength originates from our “yellow” Sun. The Hulk’s strength from his rage hormones hyper-activated on gamma-ray energy.

The Other Telepathy (Non-Mechanism)

For me, the better form of fantasy telepathy results from the Mind. The human mind is amazing, and we do not appreciate how amazing it is, because we live with one all day, and it seems to make us feel pretty stupid most of the time, right? Well, if you have a tough job or are studying advanced mathematics, then for sure it will make you feel stupid most of the time.

The truly special thing about the human mind is that it escapes routinely away from physical reality and explores the realm of abstractions. This is what mathematicians do for a living, but artists also have highly developed imaginations. When you imagine fictions or impossible creations (impossible physically, not logically) then you will be in the same mental state that I’m trying to describe. You might not think it is so amazing, since you will seem to be able to escape into pure thought as easily as closing your eyes to dream.

You will admit though, that having a truly original and brilliant thought, maybe something no one has ever thought of before, is quite hard, and no amount of hard effort will necessarily help your mind to conceive of such a beautiful idea. But it does happen. Besides, don’t be too humble. Just because someone has already had the thought you’ve just thought of does not make it any less beautiful. Provided it was your own thought and not a memory form having read or heard someone else mention it. You can still claim originality. You should claim originality. I think this is one of the triumphs of human life, to have such original thoughts. It simply doesn’t matter that in time someone may have had the thought or idea before you. You should own it anyway. Time is irrelevant — unless you seek fame, so just don’t worry about fame — just be free and detached from such vanity, then you can truly enjoy your amazing mind.

The crucial thing for my puzzle solution is that thoughts and ideas are essentially abstract. They exist independently of any physical world. Numbers and geometric objects have worldy names we all learn about in school, but those names change form culture to culture and classroom to classroom, the idea of the numbers and shapes do not change. This is because what the languages point to is abstract, it is independent of any language. Sentient aliens across the galaxies will have the same abstract idea of “threeness” that we have when we learn about triangles, and they will have the same abstract feel of perfect rotational symmetry that we have when we think about circles and spheres, only aliens will not call them “circles” or “spheres” or “numbers” or “triangle” or use the same symbols like “3”. It doesn’t matter what you call an abstraction. It will have it’s own essence. In geometry this comes out as an imperfect rendering when we try to draw a shape, with numbers the essence is closer to being revealed when a child makes three brush strokes to indicate a score of “3”, or gathers three small pebbles to say the same. This is what abstractions are about. They are pure essence. They are spiritual realities of a sort. And we can only ever approximate their essence. And they exist where we do or not exist, they exist without any Mind embodied in a physical creature to think of them and imagine them.

Computer software, or rather, the algorithms that software implements, have a similar sort of existence. They are pure ideas, and a computer scientist merely pulls them out of the realm of ideas and instantiates them in some sort of coded language which a computer can “interpret”. What’s important is not the particular software, but the pure idea of the algorithm behind the software. The same algorithm could have been written in any of hundreds of known computer languages.

So here, briefly, is my take on how this abstract realm form of telepathy could operate. The telepath uses their Mind to influence the realm of abstractions. This is the amazing power. altering abstract reality is not easy. They cannot just go and change the numerical value of π for example, nor change the idea of a perfect circle or the three-dimensionality and six-faceted nature of a cube. such abstractions are fixed and immutable by collective sentient societal contracts of reasoning (conventions, linguistics, dictionaries, etc.).

But what can be altered are the fluid abstractions. And what is a fluid abstraction? It is an idea that is not fixed. What’s an example? Well, it’s hard to say or think of many, but there is one obvious type of abstract phenomenon which is fluid, and that is the soul of a sentient creature. The thoughts and identity, the subjective personality, the Mind of a person. This is a fluid abstraction. So telepaths use their Mind to influence other Minds. This is “performed” not in physical space, but in the space of Ideas. My favourite term for this realm of ideas is the Mindscape.

I prefer “Mindscape” to “Mindspace” because the realm of ideas is not of fixed dimension or geometry, it transcends geometry and other such notions, because it actually contains such ideas as sub-spaces, or sub-scapes.

This, in summary, is how ultra-telepaths can be mythologised. Their power is due to where Mind’s roam free, a place that really is no place, but is a world without boundary, a realm we all inhabit whenever we think, but (the scifi myth goes) only telepaths can get into this realm and mess it up for others, and thus mess with your mind. A scary power for sure, but one that has a terrific scifi pedigree. If only more writers used this deeper philosophical pseudo-scientific background explanation. It’d be way cool!

*       *       *

There’s a lot more to write about telepathy.  It’s a cool superpower because it involves the most mysterious phenomenon known to humankind, namely our own minds.


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