Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Psychic links and channels of communication

Everybody knows that we communicate using language. Ask how humans communicate, and that's the first thing that pops into our minds. However, it's not the only way we communicate. Even if you don't count writing, there's a lot more going on in any conversation - particularly face to face conversation - than you might immediately realize.

Today I'm going to talk about both linguistic and non-linguistic communication in terms of sensory "channels," with one channel corresponding to each of our five senses. And then I'm going to talk abut the idea of a sixth, psychic channel - which was one of the things that I found simultaneously intriguing and disappointing about James Cameron's Avatar.

The auditory channel is typically the first one we think of when we consider communication. It's the channel where verbal linguistic information gets expressed and conveyed. It's where we find our phonemes and morphemes and syntax - the structure of language - being expressed most of the time. Science fiction and fantasy are full of examples of invented auditory languages.

We can also use auditory codes like Morse code to send linguistic information. But the auditory channel doesn't just convey language structure. Prosody, or tone of voice, also conveys a lot of information. Prosody is the use of volume and pitch to convey information about emotions and about emphasis on the words that we speak. If you look at written descriptions of verbal speech, you'll often see emotions associated with the way someone says something. Our judgment of that emotion comes in part from our interpretation of tone of voice. Tone of voice also conveys a lot about gender identity and attractiveness, but there's enough there for an entirely separate topic, so I'll leave it alone for now.

Emotional information also travels on the visual channel. The muscles in our faces pull and twitch and suddenly we can see information in another person's face - and even in the faces of non-human animals! The facial expressions of happiness, fear, anger, surprise, disgust, and sadness have for some time been considered universal to human cultures (though see this story which says that east Asian men and women concentrate more on the eye area than the mouth area, suggesting that some elements of expression are culturally based).

The visual channel can also be a primary channel for linguistic information, as in sign languages like ASL. I find it fascinating that ASL is able to use this single multidimensional channel to convey both linguistic structure and emotional information, by combining gestures (and the manner in which they are executed) with facial expressions. Codes can also be transmitted in the visual channel (immediate flash of Monty Python's skit including the semaphore version of Wuthering Heights and Julius Caesar on an Aldis lamp). There are numerous examples in science fiction and fantasy of languages using the visual channel, such as the light-language of Sheila Finch's octopus-like aliens in "No Brighter Glory" (The Guild of Xenolinguists).

My favorite example of using the tactile channel of communication is the language that Anne Sullivan used with Helen Keller - basically, English written with a finger on the palm of Keller's hand. There's clearly no barrier to communicating linguistic structure through a channel like this, even though we don't typically use it that way because we're focusing on other options. One could argue, though, that we communicate on this channel all the time, expressing non-linguistic messages about comfort, care, love and intimacy.

I've discussed the olfactory channel before, early in the history of this blog. For dogs and other animals, a great deal of information is channeled through the sense of smell - mood can be communicated through scent, and identity can be communicated through urine or musk even after quite a bit of time has passed (and in fact, smell allows animals to gauge how much time has passed since the message was left.). Taste isn't used quite as much as a communication tool, but one could argue that the culinary adventures of "Like Water for Chocolate" grew out of a keen sense of emotions being conveyed through cuisine!

So finally we've arrived at the question of psychic connections, which for this discussion it's actually quite useful to think of as a "sixth sense." Telepathy could be considered the transmission of linguistic information and structure through this channel, while empathy could be considered the transmission of emotional information, in much the same way that facial expressions transmit emotional information.

Let's play with this idea. You've got a great new sense available (by whatever means it might be actuated) for conveying information. Empathy makes the assumption that the psychic channel is being used to convey the kind of information that we pick up from the visual channel in ordinary conversation, while telepathy makes a stronger assumption, that the psychic channel can be used for linguistic structure (which is typically available in either the auditory or visual channels). Given this, I have two questions that pop up in my head:

1. Why would linguistic information on the psychic channel take an auditory or visual form?

2. How might the use of a psychic channel influence the use of language in other channels?

When I consider the first question, I'm not at all sure that information in a psychic channel would necessarily parallel the forms of language we're already familiar with. In cases like that of Ursula LeGuin's Hainish series, where humans had existing auditory language and learned thereafter to communicate in the psychic channel, I really have no problem with the idea that existing language forms would transfer over. Language is not easily re-invented. On the other hand, if you were to have a species that evolved with telepathy, the form it took would very likely have a lot to do with its means of actuation. Variations in the strength of an ongoing signal? Pulses of something? Direct perception, somehow, of the electrical signals going on in another person's brain? If we're talking about direct perception of electrical signals, then telepathy might be able to borrow sensations from the other senses - but if it is indeed a sense in and of itself, that communication might take an entirely different form. That form might be difficult to describe for those of us who don't possess such a sense, and in fact it would make communication with such a species quite challenging.

But not necessarily impossible. Just because a species uses a psychic channel, that doesn't mean it wouldn't communicate in other channels too. The communication we use is highly redundant, both linguistically and between channels. We often speak in auditory linguistic form about emotions which can simultaneously be read on our faces and in our body movements, and likely perceived in our scent as well. In just such a way, a psychic species might make certain kinds of information redundantly available - it's easy to imagine them backing up their psychic communication with facial expressions and body language, for example. For them, adapting to an entirely auditory language form would not be easy, I don't imagine, much in the same way that adaptation to sign language can be difficult for people accustomed to dealing with auditory language.

This has brought us around to my second question, of how psychic communication might influence language. I have no doubt whatsoever that it would.

In Ursula LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness, the use of the psychic channel is redundant with the auditory channel, but it is different. Because it's impossible to lie psychically, use of the psychic channel lends a sense of frankness and/or intimacy to communication.

I always wondered about the Na'vi in James Cameron's Avatar, who seemed to "link up" regularly with animals and plants, but somehow never with one another. Was that a lost opportunity for the storytellers? Possibly so - but that wasn't really a part of the story they chose to tell (which I thought was very effective for its audience). I would guess if the Na'vi were to communicate with one another that way, the need for direct physical contact would have a similar effect to the honesty requirement in LeGuin's case, making for a sense of intimacy associated with communicating in that way (what precisely is communicated in the Na'vi case is unclear, but it seems to be non-linguistic information). Might communication without that added channel then make for a sense of lack of intimacy? Rather than what we'd automatically assume, normality?

I'm sure you would also see direct influence of the psychic channel on the forms of auditory language. Vocabulary and expressions would reflect the influence of the channel's existence. Perhaps you'd see a proliferation of language used to describe the sensations and meanings associated with the psychic channel. Or perhaps you would see areas of auditory language that became impoverished because they were redundant with a more effectively communicated psychic equivalent. Quite likely in a species with a complex auditory language, you would see both forms of influence, in different areas of the language.

Whenever you are working with an extra sensory channel beyond the auditory, whether that be visual, olfactory, tactile, taste-based, or psychic, it's worth spending some time to consider how the increased importance of that channel would influence the forms of linguistic communication. Think about how we talk about what we perceive with our senses, and then ponder the impact of a significant change in the importance of any one of those additional channels. You might come up with some fascinating results.


  1. Mercedes Lackey utilizes telepathy and empathy as two of the psychic Gifts possible in her Valdemar series. Telepathy is sometimes visual, sometimes auditory, sometimes both. And the clarity of information depends on how strong the Gift is. Those with sufficient strength of these two Gifts can use them for truth sensing. (There's something called the Truth-Spell. First Stage lets you see if someone is lying, Second Stage compels the target to tell the truth.) If you haven't read any of the series, Arrows of the Queen is the best one for learning about the more common Gifts and how they're used. I'd love to see what you make of the way Lackey utilizes telepathy and empathy in regards to this topic.

  2. Fascinating post! It makes me wonder, though, about how we think about where and *when* meaning resides. Or, "comes about" may be a better way of saying it than "resides". Do people and other species have certain meanings 'in mind' that they want to communicate through the various channels that are, like you say, orchestrated together so that the load carried by one affects and is affected by the load carried by others? Or are the meanings themselves dependent on the channels available to the communicating lifeform in question, and how they are enacted--performed, even--in communicative practice? I think of people like Gunther Kress who often say things like "The world told is not the world shown..."

  3. Thanks for your comment, Dave! I'm definitely a proponent of the idea of enacting meaning. On the other hand, a conduit metaphor has certain utility for the topic of channel. I'm intrigued by your question of whether people have certain meanings in mind. In a sense I believe they do have intent to convey meaning, but at the same time I don't think they consciously grasp all the different ways it can be conveyed, and some of the meanings will depend on the available channels. Which is to say that I don't think what you've phrased as an "or" question needs to be interpreted as a restrictive "or" question. I do think that different channels of communication can interweave and have influence on one another. And I must add that I can't help but think of the writer's "show don't tell" when I hear your Gunther Kress quote...

  4. Regarding the Na'vi, they do "bond" with each using their queues. In the deleted parts of the love scene between Jake and Neytiri (which will be in the expanded version), bonding in that way is part of their lovemaking and I could well imagine a mother and child bonding in a similar way. Fascinating post, by the way.

  5. Anonymous,

    Thanks for providing the insider information! I'm actually relieved to hear it works that way, because it seemed like a pretty glaring omission in the movie as it stood. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.