In each pair, one participant acted as the “sender” of thoughts, watching the game on a screen as an EEG recorded their thoughts about when to fire a virtual gun. The thoughts were then transmitted over the Internet to the “recipient,” who had access to a keyboard with which to fire but could not see the game. Shooting accuracy, which the researchers used to gauge telepathic success, varied among the pairs from 25 to 83 percent.
One way of understanding the enthusiasm for telepathy is to consider its inverse: the growing suspicion of traditional verbal communication. Consider the remarkable rise of emoji, which, according to one British linguistics expert, is “the fastest growing form of language in history, based on its incredible adoption rate and speed of evolution.” In August, Hillary Clinton sent a tweet asking, “How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in three emojis or less.” The tweet was widely mocked, but it was telling that emoji are now a tool leaders use in their efforts to foster emotional intimacy.
Corporations have long been interested in scientific ways to detect emotions for the specific purposes of management and marketing. Not long after psychologists built the first tools for measuring human attention via eye movement in the late 19th century, advertising companies were exploring how they could be used for consumer insight. Surveys and focus groups, which require market researchers to listen to how people feel, are now being supplanted by neuromarketing. Martin Lindstrom, a leading Danish neuromarketing guru, sums up the new philosophy in a simple one-liner: “People lie, brains don’t.” Observe what people really feel, the thinking goes, rather than what they say they feel. Words are perceived as an obstacle to honesty, rather than a means of delivering it.
And just as people no longer need to verbalize how they feel, they may one day be able to satisfy their desires without verbalizing what they want. Within The New York Times’ recent indictment of Amazon’s working culture was a hint of this idea. “A customer was able to get an Elsa doll that they could not find in all of New York City, and they had it delivered to their house in 23 minutes,” one Amazon executive boasted. Why the 23-minute wait? If Amazon aims to connect its customers with products as fast as possible, surely the ultimate service would be to eliminate the delay between wanting and having altogether.
It's not as unrealistic as it sounds. Amazon is already toying with the idea of "predictive shopping", in which goods are delivered to shipping hubs or trucks in anticipation of what consumers will order, based purely on their past shopping behavior. The next stage would be to mail these goods to consumers, before they had even consciously decided to buy them. Research by the legal scholar and former Obama advisor Cass Sunstein has revealed that people are surprisingly enthusiastic about this proposition. The Elsa doll could simply show up on the customer’s doorstep, without so much as a choice or demand being exercised.