This Installment: Telepathy
“We are inclined to suppose…this knowledge has transferred from him to her…through unknown ways and with exclusion of the communication methods that everybody knows. Therefore, our conclusion should be that thought transmission exists.”— Sigmund Freud
The direct transmission of thoughts between two or more minds.
- Biological adaptation (Charles Xavier, Martian Manhunter, Jean Grey, Tommy Monaghan, Aquaman, Psylocke)
- Magical (Doctor Strange, Doctor Fate, Scarlet Witch)
- Mechanical or device-oriented (Brainiac)
- Omniscience (a reality-warping power reserved for deities and the Mind Stone)
DISCLAIMER: This installment gets real meta on the human thought process and on House of X / Powers of X.
As I’m writing this, Jonathan Hickman’s first X-Men arc has just finished. And it’s a fascinating take on memory and identity has me thinking about the power of telepathy.
In Praise of Telepathy
In early history, “telepathy” was explained as a gift from the Gods. Something bestowed upon shamans, priestesses, healers, and anyone else who held the religious seat of power within a community.
But functionally, it worked a lot like therapy. Rituals for reading thoughts or dreams are about more psychedelics and sweat lodges; they provide concrete mental assurances for the afflicted. Rituals provide a comforting structure, herbs and potions provide at least a placebo effect, and the end of the ritual provides closure and finality.
Most importantly, though, having someone “read your mind” gives a patient hope that they can be understood. That they are seen and accepted. By their people and their God.
My favorite example of what we’ll call “ancient telepathic psychiatry” to be the Greek Temples of Asclepius.
These were the absolute height of medicine back in the day. They had in-patient facilities focusing on rest, diet, exercise, and an early form of group talk therapy. And they attracted the very best doctors. But it’s the construction of some of the temples that I find most fascinating.
The patient quarters were connected to the group therapy area by a long, subterranean tunnel. And as patients walked one at a time to therapy, they would hear voices coming from above them. Voices coming out of secret speakers that connected to the doctors at the top, who would walk with their patients, whispering encouragement as they walked towards the light. The idea was to make the patients believe that these were their own thoughts (or, in extreme cases, the voices of the Gods) which were encouraging them to get better.
How the 19th Century Changed Telepathy Forever
Up until the 19th Century, “telepathy” had been — on balance — holy and small scale. A one-on-one with a mystic. Sometimes a priestess or priest advising a ruler. Once in a while, the family gets together for a Shaman to heal their father or daughter or something.
Why things changed
But suddenly, in the 1800s, Western society was going wild. The Irish potato famine, Battle of Waterloo, and the American Civil War had people wondering who was dead and who was alive. At the same time, the Rosetta stone had been found, the Opium Wars were raging, and slavery was front of mind, all of which exploded the public’s imagination about the “mystical Orient” and “darkest Africa.” Lastly, England was undergoing a succession crisis and the California gold rush was on, meaning people dreamt of waking up to new lives as millionaires or even royalty.
These feelings of loss, need for connection, magic, and lust for riches fundamentally changed the scale and focus of “telepathy.”
Telepathy began as a small ritual (ranging from one-on-one to a family). It turned into a stage show that traveled meant for continual growth.
Telepathy went from the rigid formalism ritual or tradition and transformed into a business, free from ritual, with the ultimate structure being “what sells seats.” This change also meant that telepathy became more of an intellectual affair, making it less about the person (as in “spirit”) and more about the thought or minds of people.
Lastly, Spiritualism changed our image of “telepaths.” Starting with formal attire, signifying that telepathy was serious and trustworthy. European and of good breeding, not that “praying to mud and trees” business. Then the intense expression with hands pointing to the temples like tuning forks. This looked great on the brand new printing presses. Now the voice, coming from the diaphragm, soft and droning in a callback to that Eastern business.
(If you’ve pictured Charles Xavier, that’s not an accident. He visually borrows form this tradition.)
Why these changes matter
Look, I know it’s silly to say “Supernatural Thing A is better than Supernatural Thing B.” We supposedly live in a rational, peer-reviewed society now, and since both things don’t exist, there’s no reason to spend time on them. (Although I would argue that’s the entire mission statement of comic books.)
This is important because it teaches us the most important thing about telepaths, in Marvel or otherwise. But I’ll prove this with Rasputin.
Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was the premiere spiritualist of the 19th century. A traveling holy man of sorts, preaching a mixture of gospels and self-invention he picked up in the city of Abalak. He claimed to be a healer and a mind-reader and would perform as such between sermons and towns. As he moved and his claims got bigger, he reached the attention of the Russian Tsars, who summoned him as both a healer and advisor. This contributed a little to the fall of the Tsar and lead to Rasputin’s legendary death.
My point is this. Rasputin never should have left Abalak. If he’d stayed, he’d never have inflated himself to the point of being assassinated. And Russia may have benefited from a Royal Class undistracted by his treachery.
Telepathy in Marvel
For Marvel, telepathy works almost entirely one way. All people exist in two places. The first is the physical world or “normal world” and the second is the mental space of the Astral Plane. Any given person’s thoughts, memories, emotions, and other mental activity all exist in this ethereal plane of existence. Think of it like an internet connection, with a download (depositing new information into the “cloud” of the Astral Plane) and an upload (that information being transmitted to your real-world body).
According to Marvel, this is where everyone’s identity or self exists. In an enormous, Steve Ditko-looking world of floating rocks, non-euclidean geometry, dream logic, and nightmare creatures.
For 99% of the population, the Astral Plane is inaccessible. They don’t know it’s there, they aren’t aware of the whole upload/download thing… the most they may experience is a flash in a nightmare, trance state, or coma.
On the other hand, there are those who do have access, either through telepathy, magic, or genetic ability.
According to Marvel, telepathy between mortals is not a direct, biological interface but instead an intermediary process through the Astral Plane. (Note: God and people with the infinity mind gem do have direct access to the brain.)
So when Charles Xavier wants to read someone’s mind, he must enter the astral plane and locate that person’s astral self by following their “thought streams” (that upload/download thing). From there he has two options. First, Charles can manipulate their thoughts, memories, etc by manipulating their thought streams (think of it like adding or removing data in a file transfer). Second, Charles can manipulate the astral plane itself to change the stream. Indeed, when Charles talks about “psychic barriers,” he’s talking about a physical impediment in the Astral Plane itself.
Marvel vs. Our “Telepaths”
The Two Kinds of Marvel Telepaths
- The Music Hall gang – Characters that speak, dress, and act like classic 19th-century performers. Ranging from the hilariously camp Doctor Strange (with his cape, hand poses, magic words, and whole “pan-Asian” deal) to Jean Grey (who spent a few decades dressing and acting like a magician’s assistant.) I think we’ll include Ninja Psylocke here, too.
- Anime Kids – A more recent variety that sorta proves the above rule. Cable, Stryfe, pretty much anyone with metal and glowing eyes as their design aesthetic. Blame Liefeld (I do.)
Marvel’s Astral Plane is a mix of multiple sources. In terms of look, it’s mostly surrealist paintings. But mechanically, the Astral Plane resembles the “dream country” of the Australian Aboriginal tribal histories, many of which discuss people living bodily in one world, spiritually in the next, with shamans able to bridge that gap. There’s also a bit of Buddhism thrown in, particularly in the symbiotic relationship the mental projections share with the plane itself.
All of this is to mean: Marvel’s version of telepathy is explicitly about the “soul.” The Marvel astral plane is home to an invisible version of every living person. A duplicate made of energy that safeguards our hopes, fears, memories, even our literal dreams. Here, on real Earth, “telepathy” is mostly defined as changing thoughts or ideas. But Marvel has telepaths who directly interact with the astral self, a genericized, dogma-free version of the human soul.
Strategic Value of Telepathy
The benefits of telepathy are impossible to overstate. Not only because it would revolutionize covert activity, information gathering, and human asset conversion, but because telepathy is invisible. Unlike flight, energy projection, or even super strength, telepathy has no outward demonstration (hand gestures notwithstanding.) Best of all, it’s traditionally assumed that the majority of the risk stays with the mind-controlled party, not the telepathic one.
It’s for these reasons that various countries attempted to cultivate psychic soldiers over the past 100 years. (And many pre-industrial cultures attempting the same, with war rituals being arguably a religious attempt at the same result.)
Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters
The argument has been made, but it bears repeating: It’s creepy that Professor X is psychically conditioning kids to be soldiers. A generous person might point out how it speaks of MK Ultra tests and Cold War fears like some kind of genetic Red Dawn. A cynical person would say it’s no different than the techniques preferred by violent regime changes in China, Japan, North Korea, Germany, and so on. Only Charles has the added benefit of actual mind control. If we were grading this power just on a scholastic application, we’d be looking at 1.5 stars.
In comics, you see telepathy used on a wide scale, from Jean Grey helping Wolverine with his memories to Professor Xavier delivering a single message across the entire globe.
But telepathy is unique among the superpowers because you can measure its presence here on Earth. The way folk healers have historically claimed to use telepathy to heal the afflicted, to the way spiritualism raced across Europe and America are both signs of the potential of the idea, if not the ability itself.
The Trouble with Telepathy
When we think of our thoughts, we tend to think about a stream of language. If we imagine, maybe we see images or hear music. If we remember, we see memories. That’s a nice, comfortable compartmentalization that’s been reinforced by schools for years.
But the truth is, you are always remembering. Always. When you see black lines on a white background, the first thing you think of us where you associate it from. Only after this do you see the word and its linguistic definition. For a simple demonstration, watch your favorite singer perform the same song, at three different events, with the sound off. The motion of their hands and their change in posture will closely line up. This is a memory technique.
Even worse, those associations out built out of memories you don’t even know you have. Your autonomic nervous system records the way your heart beats and lungs breathe, moment to moment, forever. Your hands out of eyesight, your equilibrium, even your internal measure of time. They all get saved in each memory.
And your memories build up everything. Not just your current thoughts, but even the way you imagine the future.
A Quick Illustration
When I think about the word “comics” I feel the harsh metal staircase at my first comic shop. I am eight years old and I smell the vanilla scent of the 25 cent bin, delicately decaying on the second floor.
Next, I remember the teenager who pulled down a copy of God Loves, Man Kills off the “mature reading” shelf and showed it to me.
This teen, he’s taking time for me. Telling me how Professor Xavier can plant the idea of death in people’s heads. And suddenly I’m terrified, my heart pounding, thinking can this book do the same to me? The teen’s turning pages and the air is thick with the taste of toner. Dust and leather and gasoline fumes. A blue-black, infectious taste.
I remember how much my legs hurt from the staircase. And how I never wanted to leave, because an older kid was showing me a comic book.
I get some part of this memory every time I think of comics. The vanilla smell. The stairs. Kindness and excitement. Every time. The definition means almost nothing, now.
Implanting the word “comics” in my head would be meaningless. Without the association of my memories, it’s a meaningless void. But to build that connection, a telepath would have to know — and experience — all of my connections. They’d have to trace the unique fingerprint of my autonomic and somatic nervous system. They’d have to adjust to the sound of my heartbeat in their ears, the feel of my ribs expanding with each breath. My sight and my eyeglass prescription. My sense of time passing.
Not only would I need these things to understand the word, but it is also incredibly likely that my mind would either reject it completely. Or be broken by it.
Sins of the Past
I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream
In X-Men #2 (1963), Charles Xavier defeats the evil mutant Vanisher by giving him seemingly permanent focal amnesia. Essentially, forcing Vanisher to “forget” that he has teleportation powers. What is not pointed out in the issue, however, was that Xavier’s solution only affected autobiographical memory (Vanisher’s knowledge that he could teleport) and not the years worth of procedural memory built up from the action.
Which means that his autonomic and somatic nervous systems never did.
To illustrate the horror of this, imagine if you forgot that you could move your legs. Imagine if any memory associated with walking or running was simply gone. Only, your nervous system is still connected to them. The thoracic and lumbar sections of your spine can feel your hands touch them. Muscles twitch and tighten involuntarily. Proprioception tells you that they’re there, even when you’re not looking.
You have every single thing you need to walk except the knowledge that you can.
Imagine having a phantom limb that’s still attached, your body reaching out to a mind that’s trapped in a cage. That’s what became of Vanisher.
The Namor Problem
Check out CBH’s podcast Krakin’ Krakoa #9: Namor & The X-Men. Dave’s got a great retelling of what happened when Xavier tried to give the Prince of the Deep a conscience.
Why Community is Important
By now, I can hear some of you screaming: but what about the overwrite error? The one that means that the act of remembering something changes the memory itself? Or that eye witness testimony is famously unreliable? That we make up false memories all the time? That our whole sense of identity is dependent on a fragile mixture of sleep, food, geography, and coffee?
And you’re right. The human mind first evolved to climb trees and run away from leopards, so who are we kidding with this a priori nonsense?
And that’s true. It’s also why one of our biggest bulwarks against sliding back into the leopard’s mouth lies outside of our brain. And in many, many others.
Human children can recognize their reflection at around 24 months old. But our identities, our personal sense of self, only begin to solidify between the ages of about 9 and 17. Why the wait?
It’s because that’s when we start to intentionally form social groups. We select people and ideas at the exclusion of others. And these social groups enforce not just the way we talk or dress, but how we define our reality, and what is and is not “normal.”
This is the other wrinkle about telepathy: even if you can decode someone’s nervous system, keep from throwing up at their sensory input, and play pictograms with their memories, you couldn’t hope to keep your command going.
You’d have to change a whole group of people, stick them together, and force their bond to keep from tripping the social filter. You know, like a classic cult brainwashing. Or maybe a superteam.
To Me, My X-Men
So who is Charles Xavier? He dresses like a 19th-century spiritualist hustler. He has the power to not just read and change thoughts but to survive the process. He’s touched the entire world. And he poisoned me at that comic shop back in the 1980s.
Who is he? And why does he have those kids?
I wonder who Charles was before he was this man. I wonder how his personality has changed after touching so many souls. And how many memories he’s accidentally brought back with him, his mind now falling victim to his own faulty human mind. I wonder if he ever eats and thinks “this used to taste different” or if sunsets look wrong to him. I especially wonder if he’s addicted to the rush of reading minds, the second history and body providing double the input. To say nothing of the power and control.
Most of all, I wonder if Charles Xavier is anyone. Is there anything left of the man who was? Or is Charles Xavier now merely everyone?
I think, then, that this is the ultimate purpose of the X-Men. As I noted above, the human mind has some serious failings when it comes to interior validation so a peer group helps give us both in terms of behavioral reinforcement as well as feedback about how we’re experiencing reality.
In other words: it takes a lot of minds to keep just one in check.
Which brings us back to Charles Xavier. The human mind is meant to consider things like peer groups and family as something gathered around a campfire or a mastodon carcass; the ability to intimately know people he’s never even met must strain that conditioning to the breaking point.
So what if the X-Men aren’t a class and Charles Xavier isn’t a teacher. Maybe he’s not a humanitarian to an oppressed people or a general to a child army at all. What if Charles really is the strongest mind on the planet, and this is just the peer group that keeps him sane?
After all, if Charles can experience any mind on Earth and any version of reality that mind can manufacture, how would he know who he is or what is real except by having other mutants, his peers, to tell him?
So Charles having consistent faces in front of him and people he can touch must be such a relief. Knowing that he hasn’t forced them there and that they have autonomy, must provide some kind of third-party verification.
“There is, for example, the phenomenon of thought transference which is closely allied to telepathy (…). It is held that psychological processes, ideas, states of excitement, volition, which occur in the mind of one person can be transferred through space to another, without the usual means of communication (word or sign) being employed.” — Sigmund Freud
“Transference” is the psychological occurrence in which people copy their thoughts, feelings, even memories about one person or thing, and paste them onto another. Transference is why people come home from work and pick a fight with their spouse. It’s also why Magneto becomes a hero in God Loves, Man Kills or Namor’s constant face turns.
People suffering from transference routinely have no idea what’s happening to them. Something has changed somewhere, a place invisible to our world. Files were moved, records changed, and their epistemology error checking failed to catch it. Suddenly, the subject’s entire reality is different. It’s not that they feel love or hate, but rather they feel it so strongly it’s as if they always had. All without telepathy.
To change even a single thought is to change an entire world.
I think about this. My work here at Comic Book Herald is all about trying to take an idea out of my head and implant it perfectly in yours, always knowing that I’ll only ever get close. And I think about people with even more difficult things to say or express.
The fear of telepathy is enormous, and the certainty that we would misuse it is haunting. And still, I think every single one of us wishes for just one person to read our mind sometimes. To feel the sun on our skin, the ache of our loss, or the metal stairs beneath us.