I love science fiction. All kinds. The B-grade kind, the kind which has a higher budget for a famous actor than for a thorough script, the Sharknado kind, etc.
In many of these science fiction movies, comics, and books, the idea of a brain that is capable of god-like things is a popular trope- Martian man, Prof. Xavier, the many characters from Heroes, Doctor Manhattan, Vision, Doctor Strange.
Similarly, there are tonnes of stories of people who claim to move things with their mind, see the future, predict unknowable events, etc.
Today, let us look at a specific category of brain powers seen in science fiction & these personal stories from people – The capacity to create causal effects using just the power of the mind. Science fiction is deliberate fiction, it is not a product of evolution, nor is it engineered in a material sense. So most things check out under the mask of fiction. What happens when we logically tackle these psychic/psionic/extrasensory powers in the realm of reality?
In this article, I will not try to debunk these claims. However, I’ll lay down the ground-level arguments for why the brain cannot be capable of doing this; purely from a logical point of view. My arguments will be listed as points.
Why is extrasensory perception and telekinesis not possible?
- Why the brain cannot demonstrate extrasensory perception – a story
- 1. Lack of a sensory medium:
- 2. Why energy can’t explain ESP:
- 3. The quantum entanglement problem:
- 4. Cognitive limitations:
- 5. Evolutionary limitations:
- 6. The emergent phenomenon (my last argument):
Why is extrasensory perception and telekinesis not possible?
Does the brain really have psychic powers? Can it? We will find out soon.
Note: This is a nearly exhaustive 3000+ word article. Take your time.
First, let me declare my personal biases:
- I wanted to study parapsychology (the study of ESP and similar things through a scientific lens) and become a Ghostbuster. Yes, it was a very cool career plan.
- When evaluating ideas, I inevitably go through a scientific screening process by studying the background information and look for conflicting data.
- I am enamoured by a lot of things, even though they are invalid in the scientific realm. Zombies apocalypse, for example.
- I am exposed to A LOT of fictional ideas because of my interest in anime, sci-fi, general hypothetical scenario thinking; and I am open to all things real & unreal. It’s fun.
- I hate fakers & fraudsters.
- I don’t hate people who believe what they think is happening, even though they may be misinformed or their inference is erroneous.
- I follow scientific inquiry at a professional & personal level.
Why the brain cannot demonstrate extrasensory perception – a story
Extrasensory perception is too much for the brain to be capable of, logically speaking.
Extrasensory perception: The perception of information from the surrounding that is outside the realm of the known sensory pathways. This includes precognition (knowing something beforehand), clairvoyance (knowledge of information that is kind of unknowable directly), telepathy, thought transfer, etc.
Telekinesis: Influencing matter with one’s mind in a way that does not involve the known sensory pathways or any physical causal pathway. That is, the influence of mind on matter with no observable mechanism.
The reason I put these 2 together in one category for this article is that the brain has certain limitations that cannot enable either. For example, both ESP and TK require the brain to assimilate information from beyond the senses. Both get similar explanations from believers.
What is peculiar about this category is that there always lies the assumption that it is possible. And then there are rules put on top of it to qualify this ability.
Let us discuss Mr. Zyzzyx… (he is a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend who knows how to read minds)
Mr. Zyzzyx claims to know the thoughts of a person by getting into someone’s mind and seeing those thoughts as if they are his own. A popular kind of qualifying rule that such a claim would have is ‘Mr. Zyzzyx needs to see this person. The closer the person is, the more accurate the mind reading is’. This sounds fair. I mean, WiFi routers work like that, it makes sense.
See what I did there? I used an analogy. I created a framework to understand this concept of ESP.
What really happens with analogies? With analogies, inside the brain, there is some neural reuse. That means that some circuitry which enables us to understand how WiFi works is employed to understand ESP. Sounds logical and believable, right? Neural reuse is real, however, because we used that analogy, it feels like the idea of ESP is real & has logic underlying it.
In Mr. Zyzzyx’s story, there are 3 problems.
- I started by saying (read- declaring) that Mr. Zyzzyx’s claim is a true premise- ESP is possible
- I then used rules to qualify this ability
- I used an analogy to make it seem logical
This is a large part of the problem. These 3 points make ESP sound like a real thing.
Let us tackle each point.
- “ESP is possible” should be a conclusion based on evidence. Not a premise which is assumed to be true.
- Rules should not be applied ad hoc to justify a phenomenon. Rules should, in fact, be first principles that make sense before the phenomenon occurs.
- Analogies can confound and blur logical inconsistencies because the analogous aspect is so well understood.
But now, let us dive in deeper. Let us look at the limitations of the brain that directly make it IMPROBABLE for ESP to exist.
Why do I say improbable instead of impossible? Because we are now in the realm of scientific inquiry & logical inquiry. Hard certainty is almost never possible. There only is evidence that supports, contradicts, or confounds a hypothesis.
1. Lack of a sensory medium:
Do we need a medium? Yes. Something has to propagate information. When it comes to conversing, we create an intended causal influence on someone by using meaningful words that are understood by both parties. These are propagated as sound waves through a medium (usually air) that our ears capture. Then the brain interprets them using mental representations of words that we have acquired through various learning processes. There is a clear pathway. We still don’t know everything about how neurons create mental representations of sounds, but we know they do. When it comes to ESP, there is no sensory medium that can be measured. Is there any sensory medium to begin with? We haven’t found it yet. Because, a sensory medium requires a biological component which directly communicates with the brain. We know the human anatomy pretty well, and no such sensory organ/pathway has been found. We have about 10-12 senses based on how we define the senses. None of those has any mechanism to enable ESP information.
Does this mean… for ESP to occur, the information from one object/human to another object/human needs to find another way to get inside the brain? Sure, let’s try to find out if that is possible. We rule out all of the sensory organs because they provide no evidence for ESP. Can we say that ESP occurs in the form of some energy that is transferred?
Energy is a funny concept. Physics uses it as a concept that tethers physical phenomenon in the universe. In physics, the concept withstands mathematical rigour and can be used to make predictions. It can be defined at many levels of analysis. From the kinetic energy of a ball to its potential energy, from subatomic processes to the movement of galaxies. Some spiritual people use it as a concept that ‘comes and goes’ with respect to you. It’s merely a metaphor. And almost always reflects a feeling with some level of intensity. It cannot be measured, it cannot be defined with a pathway, and the word is just thrown around as something true. Moreover, this energy is simple to understand as compared with the intricate psychological phenomenon. People are happy communicating about this ‘energy’. It is abstract enough and can be communicated easily. Everyone who uses words like these (‘vibrations’ is in a similar category) end up having their own conceptual understanding which works for them. Is ambiguous reference to energy qualified to be a medium for ESP?
2. Why energy can’t explain ESP:
As I mentioned earlier, energy appears to be merely a metaphor when people talk about things like ESP. It is probably a feeling or some carnal arousal they experience. The question is: Do you need this untraceable energy to explain that feeling or carnal arousal? The reliable answer I see is NO. The brain consumes energy in the form of glucose and is needed to function. Without it, the brain starts failing as an organ. Moreover, the electrical & chemical activity in the brain can be measured using a number of tools like EEG, fMRI, PET. In fact, the brain can be stimulated to change thoughts (w/ the goal of therapeutic effects), improve memory, as well as local activity by means of Transcranial magnetic stimulation. It is within reason, that the activity is roughly similar across all humans and is predictable. When it isn’t predictable and goes out of bounds, people often experience a seizure. So what is this energy doing? It doesn’t look like it is causing some influence on the brain in terms of ESP. Does this ESP-energy medium account for any verifiable activity in the brain? I can’t find evidence for a yes.
3. The quantum entanglement problem:
‘Spooky action at a distance’, its popular explanation. Physicists say that there is no such spooky action at a distance per se. There is, however, evidence for properties of one particle to be linked to the same property of its entangled pair. We can’t just use this very specific phenomenon to explain another unspecific phenomenon. Here is why.
- Firstly, entangled particles are what we observe. They aren’t the observers. When it comes to ESP, we humans are the observers. We humans aren’t entangled with each other… unless someone brings in evidence for complex biological entities being entangled.
- Secondly, there is no information transfer. The no-communication theorem in physics says that there is no transfer of information from one particle to the other.
- Thirdly, this action at a distance description is misleading. Because, quantum entanglement may be observed as action but when you look into it, the phenomenon is different from an ‘action.’ When 2 particles (photons) emerge from one single source as entangled pairs, observing a property of one particle in the pair determines the outcome of the observation of its pair. There is a subtle difference between transferring information from one particle to the other and how the observation of one particle determines the outcome of the observation of its pair.
With these 3 points, I consider explaining ESP with quantum entanglement invalid. Doesn’t sound like ESPers are releasing entangled pairs of particles that contain the information inside someone’s brain. But here is a fun fact, the human eye is sensitive to detecting quantum effects, that is, the eye is a valid observer.
Special note: There are a number of articles online (I won’t cite or create a back-link for them) that try to explain one hard-to-understand phenomenon with another hard-to-understand phenomenon. The argument is illogical and sounds something like – ‘I don’t know how A works. I also don’t know how B works. So they must be related to each other’. Just the fact that many things are lacking an explanation, without knowing better, the only thing they are related by is – We don’t know how they work. That is it. No reason to explain one with the other. That is a category error.
4. Cognitive limitations:
The brain doesn’t process images and visions nor information the way a camera or microphone does for photographs or audio recordings. Some examples: memories are reconstructions of existing memories. As a memory is acquired, certain cells are employed to represent them and they become a part of a network. Just activating some of these cells can induce the behavioral response associated with that memory. Another point is that the brain actually recruits a number of neurons to accommodate learning (and thereby, the memory). The numerous neurons that are recruited for that learning instance, in a sense, are put through a trial. Some neurons make the cut, and some don’t. The ones which don’t are killed. These 2 findings suggest a totally unique neural configuration for how the information is stored in the brain. How would ESP account for these specifics for the activation and perception of a memory from another brain?
Although the structures and functions of the big brain regions are nearly the same across all people, there are intricate minute differences in the smaller connections. I’ll use the metaphor (purely for simplicity). Imagine the road network in your country. People have the same highways but they don’t have the same internal smaller roads that connect towns and blocks. This difference (in the brain, not the road metaphor) directly leads to the inference that the biological correlates for information in the brain are likely to differ across people. So for ESP to occur, we don’t just need the information. We need a translator that translates the representation of information from one brain. And this translator also has to emerge from one brain, travel to the ESP claimer’s brain and find a way to reverse engineer the thoughts and invoke similar/same thoughts.
So 2 things, the information AND the translator of thoughts need to be communicated from one brain to the other. We don’t know whether such a translator can even exist. Another limitation of the brain is that of how information itself is stored. It is generally agreed upon that information is spread across the brain in the form of a network. How this network manifests in the brain is magnificently unique. The computer or electronic device analogy fails when it comes to storing information. A certain bit of information is not stored at an X location waiting to be retrieved by the brain. So just finding the location of detailed information in one brain and then sending it across sounds nearly impossible. Although some type of information can be transferred via the internet and other electronic channels between 2 brains (that’s a pathway, point 1), we cannot send your experience of a first school day with all details from one brain to the other…. yet.
5. Evolutionary limitations:
Suppose, just suppose, there is an unknown undiscovered region of the brain and/or human anatomy that allows the reception of information in an unorthodox way (unlike all other biology) which is legitimately considered as ‘Extra Sensory’. Is this ability like left-handedness, manifests in just a few individuals? Is it like a different sensory pathway like that seen in certain fish where the communicate using electrical fields around themselves? Well again, point 1. That medium doesn’t exist in us. But, I’ll still play the devil’s advocate. Wouldn’t it be an amazing advantage to have a way to perceive information from another being or any object? Look at wars for example. Warriors from the bronze age until the 21st-century pseudo-third world war would have an unfair advantage. Unlike anything we’ve seen before if he/she could locate unseeable bunkers, bombs, and camps. People with ESP would be the survivors. Thus, I’d assume that the gene mutations that allowed this, or the epigenetic changes that allowed this would spread across the population. We are looking at X-Men level stuff now. Why hasn’t it? My money is on the fact that ESP warriors didn’t exist.
6. The emergent phenomenon (my last argument):
Is ESP emerging as a quality of how our brain is? Within the biological limits? Is it like consciousness?
- We can’t define consciousness. We don’t know what it is. We know a great deal about the conditions necessary for consciousness as seen in humans – a complex neurological system, sensory pathways that continuously perceive information, an ability to have mental experiences in the absence of physical cues. So mixing ESP and consciousness is like God of the gaps. We don’t know how to explain this, so it must be God’s doing. A few centuries later, the boundary of what we know increases, so maybe God lies ahead of that. And thus, more and more phenomenon keep getting explained as the work of God. Later, understood by our race; only to push gods hands further ahead. So calling it like consciousness isn’t a way to explain ESP. It’s just assuming, it lies where we don’t have knowledge. It’s then unfalsifiable until we learn more about consciousness.
- Maybe there is something emergent from the brain and/or from space-time itself that creates a realm of communication that we call ESP. This has been a common trope in media. Perhaps everything in the universe is connected and we humans, specifically, the ones that can swim in this everything-network, can experience ESP.
Up until we know whether this ‘Everything-network’ exists and that we can tap into it, ESP & telekinesis seems impossible. Let the ones who can demonstrate such ability find a way to empirically prove it. It’s OK that they can’t explain it. Just demonstrate.
Summary – what prevents ESP from being a real phenomenon
In conclusion, I’d say the brain, the environment, our anatomy, and the process of evolution have offered conditions that cannot be met with for ESP to occur. Here is a short summary:
- There is a lack of medium through which ESP manifests & transfers
- Saying something is ‘Energy’ isn’t an explanation or does it shed light on the mechanism that enables ESP
- Conflating quantum phenomenon with ESP is an incorrect premise. It only adds ambiguity for someone to make some abstract sense of ESP
- There are cognitive limitations on how a memory can be transferred, encoded, and assimilated between people via ESP
- Evolutionary trends fail to accommodate the supposed prevalence of ESP
- ESP as an emergent phenomenon of the brain may be an unfalsifiable explanation and can be interpreted in any way one chooses too- like consciousness, like god of the gaps, like some universal binding between everything.
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.