Has Telepathy Become an Extinct Idea in Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Science fiction is a genre that generates far out ideas. Science fiction writers often imagine new concepts to structure into their plots. Some invented concepts are embraced by the genre and become subgenres – like space marines and military SF. Concepts like time travel, galactic empires and hyperspace travel become memes that spread to the outside world at large. At other times, real world topics, like nuclear winter and warp drives, get incorporated back into science fiction.

The Demolished Man - Signet

This gets me to wondering. Are there science fictional concepts that become extinct? Do ideas come in and out of fashion? I ask this because I’m reading The Demolished Man (1952) by Alfred Bester, which is about telepathy in society. Does anyone believe in telepathy anymore? Back in the 1950s there was a boom in ESP/Psi stories. Belief in mind reading and psychic powers have been around for thousands of years, probably crossing over from religions and beliefs in magic of our earliest ancestors. In the 1940s and 1950s, I figure SF psi-power stories became popular with the development of the idea of next stage humans, mutants or advanced aliens. For some reason people assume evolutionary advancements will confer ESP, even if it isn’t logical. Since the 1950s whenever television or movie science fiction like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek and Star Wars wanted to present advanced humans or aliens, they’d give those characters the ability to read minds or telekinetic powers.

What’s strange is we hardly read about ESP and telepathy anymore – at least in science fiction. I’m sure the ideas are still popular with fans of the occult, but not science fiction. A nice chronicle of  the use of telepathy in science fiction can be found at The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. However, checking with GoodReads I find that telepathy is still very popular with fantasy novels and paranormal romances. If you look at their list of telepathy novels very few are science fiction, and most are the classics like Slan, More than Human, Odd John, Zenna Henderson’s The People stories, and the #1 book is The Demolished Man. However, I might be wrong about telepathy becoming extinct in fantasy fiction – just check out this list of 1650 books at SciFan. However, even the titles that are science fiction, most are fantasy based.

slan-astounding oct1940

At The Science Fiction Encyclopedia they suggest that telepathy as a theme in science fiction has fallen off because of the rise of cyberspace. We now picture ourselves using computers to connect to each other. That theory feels right. One day iPhones might be implanted into our heads, and that sounds more realistic than brain cells evolving radio frequency transmitters and receivers. Technological telepathy is well underway with machine-body interfaces to allow thoughts to control muscles.


So why was psi-power science fiction so popular in the 1950s science fiction? Some people claim its because John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding Science Fiction pushed the idea of psionics on his authors because it was his pet belief. Others claim Charles Fort influenced writers like Robert A. Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard. Others claim it was the Rhine experiments in the 1930s that got the ball rolling. The 1950s was a weird time in America, with “true stories” of UFOs, ESP, Bridey Murphy, and Edgar Cayce inflaming the public with nutty ideas. After the atomic bomb became famous in 1945, I think people start believing anything was possible with the help of science. Science fiction got people thinking about intelligent life on other worlds, life that might be far superior in intellect to our own. We started imagining what humans could become with the help of mutation, genetics and machines.

stranger in a strange land - 1961

I think the idea of psi-powered humans peaked in 1961 with Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, where Heinlein featured an ordinary man raised by advanced aliens capable of learning amazing feats of brain power. For me, the idea died with Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg in 1972, which showed a lonely, pathetic telepath surviving on the margins of society.

I don’t know what caused it, but for some reason I woke up in the 1970s and rejected all speculation about the paranormal. The idea of ESP just became silly. I think the reality distortion field of the 1960s wore off. Even in 1977, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind being a wonderful film, the idea of UFOs seemed just as silly too. UFOs and ESP became concepts embraced by cranks. After the Apollo Moon missions ended in 1972 and the Viking landers made it to Mars, space travel took on a realism that made 1950s science fiction seem quaint. Starting with Neuromancer in 1984, cyberpunk fiction just changed everything in the genre. We’ve been overwhelmed by the impact of computers and nanotechnology ever since. We find magic and power in machines, not minds.

Psi-powers and mutants have been replace by exploring posthumanism. And if you think about it, there are many concepts once popular in science fiction that are slowly becoming extinct. Beside Psi-powers, the idea of mutants seldom shows up. We don’t talk much about WWIII or nuclear wars. Even though the population of real robots is growing in the real world, we don’t see many robot stories anymore either. Interstellar had a nice robot. We seem to imagine AI machines being embedded into our technology rather than Asimovian robots.

I can’t say if psi-powers were just a story idea, or if people really believed back in the 1950s that humans would one day evolve to have such amazing abilities. Maybe the kids of that era hoped to grow up to be Superman and fly. If I had to guess, I would say many SF fans back then did believe in Slans, because many people today want to believe in life-extension, artificial intelligence, downloading brains and human-machine mind connections. Over time we’ll discover what’s really possible, and then many of the beliefs about those concepts will die off too, like belief in ESP powers today.


In the late 1980s I had a BBS devoted to science fiction and I brought up the topic of telepathy and ESP then. I assumed everyone believed it a dead topic by that time, but I was proven wrong. Many of the members of my bulletin board became enraged by my attack of telepathy. They passionately wanted to believe in extrasensory perception. I wonder if that’s going to happen again with this essay?

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36 thoughts on “Has Telepathy Become an Extinct Idea in Science Fiction?”

  1. Interesting as always Jim. I’m in the “for” camp with regards to telepathy being possible. I just don’t believe it’s possible for humans given our current biological limitations. Now, a more advanced or biologically evolved and/or technologically advanced species on the other hand…

    Consider that the brain emits radio waves of energy. It’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that a species could develop to the point of being able to interpret these waves of energy IF they were sensitive to the correct frequency and their environment. So perhaps we’re just not evolved (or wired correctly) for telepathy in our current state. We have a good example in dolphins. They’ve evolved and internalized a highly sensitive biological sonar system. This enables them to see things even our best technologies can’t match (and certainly exceeds our biological senses). But some day, we might match or surpass their abilities through technology. Thus, because we are a flawed species, telepathy may not ever be possible without more advanced technologies. Could we ever evolve (technologically and/or biologically) enough to enable telepathy with others? That’s debatable. From that perspective, I think we will have destroyed ourselves long before we get to that point.

    With regards to science fiction, I would think it’s possible that we may see the idea of telepathy come back into vogue in the years ahead that incorporate new things we’re learning through current research in fields such as neuroscience and AI. Time will tell I suppose.

    1. Actually, I think exploring why people want telepathy is interesting. In some ways ESP are god like powers. In other ways, the urge for telepathy shows a desire for better communication between people, reflecting a need to fix our limited abilities to express ourselves and understand other people.

      But I also have to wonder if our thoughts are more coherent than our speech? I don’t think mine are. I think what we want when we desire telepathy is to know how others feel. We want communion instead of communication.

      I find writing is an expression of organizing my thoughts. In a spectrum of precision I’d say the order is from unconscious mind, conscious thoughts, speech and then writing. Which makes me wonder if the desire for telepathy is wish for voyeurism – to look at people’s naked thoughts.

  2. I’ve always tended to believe that SF’s engagement with telepathy originated with the Rhine institute, that became established in the late 30s. I know that at least one author (Chandler) uses the institute’s actual name in his works.
    Campbell was obviously aware of its research, and I’ve no doubts that information regarding the research was well known to fans and authors in the 30s and 40s.
    I expect that computer moderated ‘telepathy’ will continue to be a part of the genre.

      1. Brian, I don’t know of any research that proved the existence of ESP powers. As far as I know, the only positive results were in the early years of research, and those positive instances were within the realm of random factors.

        I don’t think science fiction is about the unreal. I think it’s speculation about what might be scientifically possible. For instance, science fiction used to speculate more about faster-than-light travel, but recent books that take a hard-science approach use slower-than-light travel. I think writers are finally accepting that speculation about FTL is mainly hypertheoretical mathematical speculation that has little chance of being made real.

        Science fiction changes over time as the general population catches up with science. Star Wars science fiction is a lot closer to science fiction of the 1930s and 1940s than modern SF. I believe we’ve moved on from 1950s science fiction about ESP/psionics.

      2. Brian, I don’t think Arrival is about precognition like Philip K. Dick stories were. The premise was the alien language allowed seeing your life in four dimensions, as a whole. That’s not precognition, but a theory that suggests it might be possible to see all our whole existence as one structure rather than a series of moments. It’s a neat idea, but bogus. It has all kinds of philosophical and practical complications. If the future already existed in one shape, why would getting the message to the woman make it another shape?

      3. The people being attacked in the ‘skeptic forum’ are real scientists, unlike the pseudosceptics themselves who essentially use the argument that anyone doing research is a ‘believer in woo’ who can be ignored.
        The article I cited is rather technical. I chose it in view of its recency, but a less technical article is one by President of the American Statistical Association Jessica Utts, at http://www.ics.uci.edu/~jutts/UttsStatPsi.pdf, and there’s also https://www.ics.uci.edu/~jutts/air.pdf.
        Contrary to your presumption, a fair amount of psi research has been going on, and with improved techniques, e.g. the observations not being done by hand but by some automated process, which have not made the results go away. The problem with the pseudosceptics is that one can always find reasons to disbelieve! In this connection I can recommend the web site http://www.skepticalaboutskeptics.org/ (there’s also a Kindle book ‘Skeptical About Skeptics’ with selections from the website, free on the first of each month!).
        Re films, I was interested in SF books when I was young but didn’t go to any films of this kind, except maybe Destination Moon which didn’t involve psi, but you are probably right that things are different today. But I’d be inclined to attribute these differences to fashion.

      4. This has been an interesting thread, Jim, but I’d have to go with your initial comment that “scientific research into telepathy failed to pan out.” This stuff has been studied for more than a century, and it certainly has failed to pan out – so far, at least.

        Typically, when scientists investigate something real, they get better and better at detecting it. That hasn’t happened with psi powers. Even after such a long time, psi enthusiasts don’t have anything more than very slight indications from meta-analysis. So I think our skepticism is fully justified.

        Of course, that doesn’t prove there’s nothing there. Science isn’t about proof. Whether it’s psychic powers, cold fusion, reincarnation, Bigfoot, alien abduction, or anything else, rational people remain open to being proven wrong. But claims will be taken less and less seriously as time goes by. And that’s how it should be, until there’s real, demonstrable evidence (something better than very slight indications from meta-analysis), don’t you think?

        People being people, there will always be enthusiasts. No matter what, there will always be people researching what most scientists consider to be fringe claims. There will always be true believers. Some appealing beliefs will never die, no matter what.

        On the one hand, in the absence of good evidence, I see no reason why scientists should take fringe claims seriously, especially after long decades of research has continued to turn up nothing – or, at best, very, very slight indications of… something. Certainly, I shouldn’t take such claims seriously, as a layman.

        But on the other hand, I think it’s a good thing that there will always be a few enthusiasts, no matter what. It might be highly unlikely that breakthroughs will happen, but if such implausible truths exist, we might never discover that without enthusiasts who never say die.

        As one example, research is still continuing into cold fusion. Scientists have been burned by false claims before, so they might be less likely to take it seriously next time. But there will always be cold fusion enthusiasts, and there will always be scientists willing to take a look at any results they claim to get – a skeptical look, yes, but that’s exactly as it should be.

        I’m not an expert in any of this stuff, but given the long history of psychic research, I think I’m fully justified in being skeptical. Indeed, I get more skeptical as time goes on, not less, as research continues without clear results. As I say, when scientists research real things, they tend to get better and better at detecting them. When the effects get less and less instead, they’re probably not real.

        But with all of this stuff, I’m still glad that there will always be a few enthusiasts who never give up, no matter what. That’s not a bad thing, assuming that those enthusiasts continue to be honest researchers.

        This is, after all, how you become one of the most famous scientists in history. Successful heretics are the heroes of science, and that helps counter the “go along to get along” mentality that’s present in every profession. Of course, you not only have to be right, you have to be demonstrably right.

      5. Brian, it’s very hard for a non-scientist to process a scientific paper. When I looked at the first article I was impressed with the source and the methodology that went into it, but I couldn’t really comprehend what they were saying. I read lots of popular science books but that’s not the same thing as understanding actual science. However, we can apply general rules of thumb to any given situation.

        If humans really had psychic powers then scientists shouldn’t have such a hard time finding them. We know they’ve been studying the subject for 70+ years I think. Because there are so few scientists studying the topic now implies they have given up.

        It would be interesting to know Brian why finding evidence of psychic powers is important to you. In the rebuttal that I sent you, the writers of the journal article were suspect because they have a history of wanting to find evidence. Scientists are biased all the time. That’s not the problem. And science has a history of scientists that were considered wrong later being proved right. But until they are proven right we have to distrust them. The way to trust a new idea is to get a lot of scientists working on the project and finding more evidence. Until that happens I’m going to assume there’s no substantial evidence to support psychic powers.

        But this brings up a whole new issue. What are psychic powers? We generally consider telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, and teleportation as standard psychic powers. What mechanisms in the body would have evolved to support those abilities? By the way, have you not noticed that those powers are usually attributable to God or gods? And in modern times, to advanced aliens.

        Aren’t psychic powers really something we wished we had? Haven’t we used technology as a substitute? If we could have evolved those powers wouldn’t we have done it by now? Hasn’t our technological civilization taken a different evolutionary path to achieve the same goals? For example, isn’t a cell phone better than telepathy?

      6. Now here are two interviews/discussions with Annie Jacobsen, author of ‘Phenomena’, an account of the US govt.’s involvement with psi research and application: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aw4gyDnDL-4 and http://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-government-secret-investigations-into-esp-extrasensory-perception-annie-jacobsen/. The first of these is a Commonwealth Club event where Jacobsen is able to give honest responses to questions raised by people, whereas the second is a CBS news item involving two newspeople who are so totally dismissive of the idea that psi could be real that she can only go along with what they say rather than contest the matter. The newspeople’s approach provides a remarkable illustration of ‘skeptics’ at work.

      7. >But this brings up a whole new issue. What are psychic powers? We generally consider telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, and teleportation as standard psychic powers. What mechanisms in the body would have evolved to support those abilities? By the way, have you not noticed that those powers are usually attributable to God or gods? And in modern times, to advanced aliens.

        I haven’t noticed, and don’t believe it to be the case. As Annie notes, some people are gifted while others are not. But on this point it interesting that the mathematician Ramajuan attributed his remarkable powers to a HIndu goddess and there may be some truth in something of that ilk, as they are hard to understand in any conventional way.

        > Aren’t psychic powers really something we wished we had? Haven’t we used technology as a substitute? If we could have evolved those powers wouldn’t we have done it by now? Hasn’t our technological civilization taken a different evolutionary path to achieve the same goals? For example, isn’t a cell phone better than telepathy?

        I’m not entirely clear about your logic. It is on the whole the case that technology has distracted people from developing such psychic abilities that they have (also, there is a degree of contradiction between mental skills and intuition, so that too much attention to the former may detract from the latter, besides which people with powerful intuitive capacities may find it advisable to keep quiet about their use).
        Re cellphones, there are some circumstances where a cellphone is better; others where the reverse is the case.

      8. “As Annie notes, some people are gifted while others are not.”

        Except that this is just a claim. It has yet to be demonstrated scientifically. Anyone can make a claim, especially when they’re trying to sell a book.

        Brian, if you’re a scientist, you should know that. And I have to wonder why you’re trying to convince laymen on the internet instead of other scientists. If you want to change my mind, all you have to do – all anyone has to do – is present enough evidence to the scientific community to change the consensus.

        All the arguing in the world isn’t going to convince me if you don’t have the evidence to convince actual scientists working within their own field of expertise. (I don’t know what that field would be in this case, but the first link you provided was to a journal of psychology, which seems like a strange place to investigate something like this if it’s actually real. Shouldn’t it be a branch of physics?)

        We know that people lie. We know that magicians can trick even trained scientists. We know that people get strange obsessions. We know that no one is easier to fool than yourself, if you really, really want to be fooled. There will always be people on the fringe. They won’t stay on the fringe if they’ve stumbled across something real, but they have to demonstrate that first. And they need to demonstrate it to the scientific community, not on some internet blog.

        You might be right. But why should I take it seriously at this point? This is Nobel Prize-winning stuff. So go win your Nobel Prize.

  3. Kind of a tangent but my cousin recommended a book to me called Ash, a detective novel about an Iraq war veteran who gains telepathic ability after TBI. Kind of a cia thriller with violence. She loved it. It didn’t do much for me but I thought the war connection and the government response was interesting as they seek to make these individuals super spies

    1. Telepathy can be a very fascinating plot device, but ultimately it’s a gimmick sort of like those stories about people switching bodies. So it’s a fun what if kind of thing. I’ve never seen it applied to spies before. I always wanted to write a story about how women could read men’s minds but they kept it a secret.

  4. I just recently encountered an interesting form in “Zero Sum Game” by SL Huang (http://www.amazon.com/Zero-Game-Russells-Attic-Book-ebook/dp/B00JASCU3I), which I would describe (with no pejorative tone at all) as a YA pulpy techno-thriller. I see now that on Amazon it is classified under …/Suspense/Paranormal/Psychics.

    The “psychic” power presented here isn’t Old School telepathy, but more like a heightened-and-educated perception of visual queues – someone who knows what you’re thinking by reading it off your face, etc. That’s the read, here’s the send: a similarly heightened-and-educated aptitude for vocal influence, used to implant ideas, subconsciously coerce, etc.

    I’d call this a fairly solid attempt to provide a non-paranormal explanation for a psychic power, and on the whole it comes across well. I do feel that the scale of just how much even the most proficient person-reader could glean just by looking at you leaps well up the implausibility scale; here it’s *everything*, and I suspect that this is not how the mind-body interface works, nor ever will work. Tim Roth knowing that I’m dishonest when I say “I really like Lie To Me” is one thing; Tim Roth knowing that the *reason* I’m being dishonest is that I consider him to be miscast, and the plotting and relationships to be simplistic and clichéd, not to mention X, Y and Z… I don’t think you get all that from my lopsided smile.

    However, Zero Sum Game is an action novel first and foremost, and I was happy to give it a pass. You need your mind-reading villains to be a threat to get the pulse up! It’s a fun, fast-paced read.

  5. I think part of the problem is that the whole idea of psychic powers has been hijacked by the New Age movement, and the mystic- post- hippie types like Deepak Chopra. Back in the ’30s-’50s, psychic powers still seemed plausible in stories because (although psi is lacking in scientific merit) SF stories of that time period had more scientific credibility in other areas, so they could get away with making the hero a mind reader or telekinetic. But ever since Star Wars sci fi hasn’t really been about science or philosophy, and most readers just want a cheap adventure story.

  6. Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith could be mentioned as well. It had both the psychic telepathy and the electronic.

    It was rumoured in the “80s that fighter pilots could control parts of their jets with their thoughts. And indeed today psychologists can get patients to alter their brain waves and thus are voluntarily able to send thoughts.

    What you seem to want most is a more involuntary telepathy. That’s harder. But I saw recent science articles on the Internet that suggested the scientists could override a low life form’s (was it a rat or an insect or something else, I’ve forgotten) control and make it go in the direction the scientists wanted it to go.

    I think we’re going to get full electronic telepathy eventually. It’s just going to take jumping many hurdles. Hopefully it doesn’t happen till we’re a more sophisticated world civilization.

    Can we genetically engineer a person to have an antenna and other parts of a radio transmitter and receiver in their heads? Perhaps such an organism would crave lots and lots of iron.

  7. I think, like a lot of perennial desires and the story themes they engender, telepathy is a moving target, rationalized by different instrumentality as time goes on.

    As you said, technology has replaced biological based rationales for telepathy. A recent Peter F. Hamilton novel had clones linked by technology that enabled a sort of telepathy (and orgies with similarly enhanced humans).

    Personally, I don’t think most humans, me included, are that thoughtful, that coherent in our thoughts that listening in would be interesting for long. How much of a day are we really engaged in thought?

  8. I do not understand telepathy, or many of the concepts behind it, but I do appear to have reason to believe there is an element of it that does exist.
    I have a friend, whom I call the sister of my soul. We don’t talk all the time, but each time I feel pulled because something feels wrong with her, it is within 24 hours either side of a major problem with her health.
    Now in science fiction. It wasn’t back as far as the 80s, from 1994-1998 there was a reasonably popular science fiction series “Babylon 5”, and especially in later episodes telepathy was a significant factor. In 2002 another science fiction show which only lasted 1 season “Firefly” which subsequently gained enough popularity to generate the 2005 movie “Serenity” and due to experimentation, manipulation and evolution, telepathic capabilities played a significant part in each of these shows.
    Admittedly, some of this isn’t -pure- science fiction, but many perceived science fiction stories are not “pure” science fiction either.
    The concept of genres is always evolving. Telepathy and other extraordinary mental abilities have not vanished, but have given way somewhat to other concepts taking the lead in science fiction today. While no longer at the forefront of science fiction, they are still a part of the genre, and I don’t expect to see them fade away completely.
    As an author of science fiction, fantasy and modern gothic stories, I find inspiration from many directions, and crossovers between the genres makes sense to me and my story ideas.

    1. Science fiction can be almost anything people want it to be, I agree. And I also know psychic abilities are a fun plot element that still show up from time to time. But the appeal over ESP today is nothing compared to what it was in the 1950s. It was a theme that dominated in the old Astounding Magazine (now Analog). I think John W. Campbell thought psi-powers were the sign of next-stage humans. However, over the decades the interest in the paranormal has fallen off.

    1. You’re losing ground, Brian. Bill is a very level-headed guy. Also, that video you linked to is too fringe. You’re moving away from science and moving towards just wanting to believe.

      Personally, I don’t see any evidence for ESP talents, nor does science. ESP is like God – a concept we want but can’t prove.

      Back in the 1950s, many science fiction writers loved the idea of wild talents. They assumed more advanced humans, and advanced aliens would have such powers. It just hasn’t worked out that way. Most science fiction writers stopped speculating about psionics.

      1. James, this shouldn’t need saying, but if you don’t study the published research then naturally you will not see the evidence (do I hear mention in this context of the refusal by some people to look through Galileo’s telescope to see the satellites of Jupiter?). In this connection I find the Dawkins-Sheldrake encounter (see http://www.sheldrake.org/reactions/richard-dawkins-comes-to-call ) amusing.
        But i sense stalemate has been reached now, in which case I won’t continue contributing to the discussion. I should however that I share your opinion that Annie Jacobsen’s interview is not evidential — I brought it up for a different reason, which you will see if you study my post.

      2. The trouble is I’ve been reading about arguments for evidence of ESP for over forty years. It’s hard to hold out any hope. I think reality is not like what we want, but what we discover.

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