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So, in my story, their is a Superhero called “Mind Quad” aka John Paul “JP” Stevenson, a college dropout. Back when he was 23, a radioactive brain tumour nearly killed him, but thanks to an experimental treatment surgery, his brain is more powerful than any other human in existence. His mind is as powerful as a super computer, and he is an ultra genius. He was later recruited into the Union of Superpowered beings, and is a type-1 superhero.

His powers are all related to brain control, and include the abilities of Telepathy, Telekinesis, and Mind Reading. The ability I’m focusing on is the Mind Reading part. He isn’t able to simply turn off his Mind Reading ability, so it stays on all the time. My question is, how could I plausibly explain why MQ doesn’t constantly hear the thoughts of everyone around him?

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    $\begingroup$ If he could hear his own thoughts but there was a slight delay, it might make a lot of feedback. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 3 '18 at 21:16
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    $\begingroup$ “... radioactive brain tumor”?? $\endgroup$ – Dubukay Jul 4 '18 at 0:05
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    $\begingroup$ @DTCooper2 Actually most tumors are not, especially brain tumors. It's usually caused by toxic byproducts of metabolism (so-called reactive oxygen species), chromosomal abnormalities during mitosis, or simple replication mistakes made by the genetic replication apparatus. $\endgroup$ – forest Jul 4 '18 at 2:23
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    $\begingroup$ If anything in your body were highly radioactive, it would probably cause other serious problems. Including more tumors. $\endgroup$ – Draconis Jul 4 '18 at 2:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Draconis Radiation in a concentrated source is generally more cytotoxic than it is oncogenic. $\endgroup$ – forest Jul 4 '18 at 2:25

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Range based on Inverse Square Law

JP's mind reading ability has a physical basis. Similar to other types of waves, the brain waves that he is able to read disperse by the square of the distance from the brain.

If he is within 6 feet of someone he can read their mind extremely clearly. If he moves to 12 feet away, the signal is only 1/4 as strong, like a whisper instead of normal talking. And if he moves 100 feet away then he can't read much of anything, unless a group of people synchronize their thoughts to "shout" at him.

Just like a conversation in a crowded room, if he is by himself with one or two other people he can read their minds just fine. But if he is in a crowded subway car with 20 people within 10 feet, he can't read much from any individual - just like regular people can't distinguish voices in a crowd.

Put him in a stadium and it becomes noise and he tunes it out as he can't understand any of it - just like a regular person learns to ignore sounds in the same environment.

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  • $\begingroup$ If he puts his head in contact with another persons head, can he think their thoughts? $\endgroup$ – Willk Jul 3 '18 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Willk Yes. He can think other people's thoughts in general, when in range. Right next to someone his powers are the strongest. $\endgroup$ – manassehkatz-Reinstate Monica Jul 3 '18 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ So, mind reading is like sonar $\endgroup$ – DT Cooper 2 Jul 4 '18 at 4:37
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    $\begingroup$ @DTCooper2 Not quite. Not like active sonar (send a ping and listen for the reflection). Maybe like passive sonar - but that is essentially listening for sounds. I think of it more like seeing or listening but instead of visible light or sound waves, you are using "brainwaves". In reality, as I understand it, brainwaves are electrical signals inside the brain. In your world, I see the brainwaves as something "like" electromagnetic radiation (which is a fundamental "wave" in the universe including light, radio, x-rays, etc.) or sound waves, except that only JP can detect & understand them. $\endgroup$ – manassehkatz-Reinstate Monica Jul 4 '18 at 4:44
  • $\begingroup$ Really cool! This way he could also put on "Ear buds" in form of a metal-lined Cap or so $\endgroup$ – Hobbamok Jul 4 '18 at 8:01
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He disciplined himself into treating all surrounding 'voices' as white noise, just like we walk in a crowded street without focusing on every single sound surrounding us. By the same token, our hero can specifically focus on one or more specific target and listen at them clearly

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  • $\begingroup$ What is white noise? $\endgroup$ – DT Cooper 2 Jul 3 '18 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ @DTCooper2 White noise is a type of noise that is produced by combining sounds of all audible frequencies together. If you took all of the imaginable tones that a human can hear and combined them together, you would have white noise. $\endgroup$ – Nikola Stojanovic Jul 3 '18 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ Inserted a wikilink $\endgroup$ – Valerio Pastore Jul 3 '18 at 20:44
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    $\begingroup$ @DTCooper2 Basically the cocktail party effect for the mind, see also selective auditory attention and cognitive inhibition. $\endgroup$ – isanae Jul 4 '18 at 0:18
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You can't turn your ears or skin off, but your brain has more than enough systems to filter signals. For example, you probably weren't aware of the sound of your PC or the feeling of your chair until you read this, as your brain (and feedback loops in the peripheral nervous system) was filtering it until it became (sort of) relevant.

You also use such systems to filter conversations in a crowded room. People with autism miss at least a few of these systems which is why they can be "overloaded" with signals. Imagine trying to listen to one conversation but hearing 6 simultaneously without any chance of making sure which words belong to what concersation...

If your superhero is so super with his brain, he could have the ability to rewire parts of his brain, similar to how someone with a brain injury can have parts of his brain rewire itself to have a higher functionality. He rewires parts to function as a permanent filter similar to what his body already does, but perhaps more effective.

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First easy answer

Imho is not that difficult to justify: "listen" is somehow a passive task and, notably, people in big cities (with a lot of traffic) or near train stations are quietly used to sleep with a high level of noise. No big deal, they are not deaf, they just don't care except when they do, so they can understand what they want and simply discard everything else.

Even more easy answer

It's called "mind reading" and not "mind listening" for reasons, it's definitely an active "high concentration" task, and "mind reading" is also very different from "mind seeing". What's the issue in not reading all the books that are in a library if you don't want to? None...

If you want to read a book you can - and have to- grab the book, open it, and READ it. You can see that other books are around you, but who cares?

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  • $\begingroup$ That's exactly what I was going to answer except I would have said "Mind hearing" instead of "mind listening" but anyway, nice and logical answer ! $\endgroup$ – Rolexel Jul 4 '18 at 12:33
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The answer is quite simple: he doesn't focus on what people are saying. When you are in a crowly place with several persons who you don't care, Do you listen to what is saying each one of them? Of course no, even if you wanted you wouldn't be able to hear and interpret what is saying each one, it's too much information to process! Your brain just doesn't pay attention to that, the same with his brain.

Also, if you don't like that idea... you could think that thoughts are like voice: Thoughts emits like a kind of "sound" that he is the only able to hear, but this "Xs waves" diminishes by distance as sound does. Can you hear what is someone saying at a hundred metres?

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It can be likened to tinnitus, and the way that many sufferers of tinnitus can learn to block it out by listening to music or simply with their thoughts.

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A text-reading human being isn't reading every book (or other text source) in the universe simultaneously.

Like the mind-reading superhero, any words (in one's native language) that a literate person sees, he will read reflexively. This ability can't be turned off. But we can't perceive all sources of text in the universe all the time. It is certainly plausible that a mind-reading individual would also experience their own set of perceptive limitations.

The easy example would be to say that the mind-reader is perceiving certain signals whose strength decreases with distance. Additionally, a certain minimum signal strength is needed for the mind-reader to perceive the signal.

However, feel free to be more creative with this idea. You may wish to have certain things block these signals, in analogy to the way many surfaces block the passage of light. You could also play with more complicated ideas of reflection, refraction, absorption, and interference.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding, Apollys! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. You may also find Worldbuilding Meta and The Sandbox (both of which require 5 rep to post on) useful. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – FoxElemental Jul 4 '18 at 0:41
  • $\begingroup$ Yes. I can see how this would be a good answer, but it seems like the OP wants to do a SOUND-based type dealio. You can't not HEAR things, not things that are in range anyway, but you can pass by a billboard without reading it. It's a heck of a lot harder to not hear... $\endgroup$ – Erin Thursby Jul 4 '18 at 16:09
  • $\begingroup$ Sound and light are both waves, the distinction is not important. And of course you could pass a billboard and close your eyes or look at something else, that's not the point here. $\endgroup$ – Apollys supports Monica Jul 4 '18 at 23:02
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Our eyes don't see everything that exists all at once. We only see in the direction we're facing, we need to physically focus differently for near and far vision, and we can concentrate on a small part of what we see, mentally ignoring the remainder unless something interesting/important (like a bus hurtling towards us) enters our field of vision.

Most objects we can see are opaque. If two people are standing one behind the other, the superhero might not be able to hear the further person's thoughts at all, or the thoughts might interfere with each other.

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JP's Mind reading capabilities could be 'on' all of the time, but his brain may choose to ignore it (or at least most of it).

Just like how you can see your nose, but your brain chooses to ignore it.

JP's brain could be always 'aware' of the thoughts of other people, but until he concentrates on listening in, it could just be like a background noise. (Similar to how if i wanted to see my nose, I'd just concentrate on it).

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Knowing what everyone is thinking at all times can be a curse. Knowing their true intentions can drive a person mad. Though the character can hear others' inner thoughts when he chooses to, he learned long ago that the base desires of humans are cruel and selfish and make him lose faith in humanity. But he also knows that they rarely reflect what humans really want, and are often instantaneous reflections instead of coherent thoughts. So he chooses to ignore them, and chooses to see the beauty in this world, rather than the ugliness. Random mind reads aren't for him, not for the sake of others' sanity, but for his own.

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See JP's pajama hat? That, my esteemed fellow, is JP's way of getting some quality sleep.

Inside, it has an anti-static mesh coupled with flexible gold cloth.

A cranky hero soon slips unto villiany, so JP makes sure to get his 8 hours of undisturbed beauty sleep. 😉

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  • $\begingroup$ Gustavo, I found this funny! 😉Hope you don't mind that I fixed some grammar errors. $\endgroup$ – metacubed Jul 4 '18 at 8:09
  • $\begingroup$ Go ahead, glad you enjoyed it. $\endgroup$ – Gustavo Jul 4 '18 at 12:56
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    $\begingroup$ I always felt that daredevil - with his extra sensitive hearing would need something like this! $\endgroup$ – UKMonkey Jul 4 '18 at 17:22
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I'm going to go the other way. He does read everyone's mind. All the time.

In fact, he projects his mind into everyone's mind. All the time.

His consciousness is no longer isolated to himself. He runs processes on every human mind nearby. These processes don't feel like thought to the people he is piggy backing on. For the most part, these processes don't impinge on the conscoius experience of the people being suborned; "Mind Quad" no more orders human minds about than we tell the cells in our skin to divide.

The original JP Stevenson is basically an antenna for the distributed "Mind Quad" hive intelligence to be able to communicate with mere mortals.

In order to engage in conventional mindreading or telepathy, "Mind Quad" has to work quite hard at it. You usually aren't aware of what your tongue is feeling; you have to focus on your tongue. "Speaking" into the mind of someone is akin to learning how to do the Spock hand gesture, or bending only the top joint of a finger; it requires flexing your finger tendons in a strange and unnatural way.

Reading someone's mind is like that; focusing on bending only the top joint of a finger. MQ is always reading everyone's mind, but not as a narrative; the reading of the mind is as a subprocess to MQ's intelligence.

This also means that MQ will sometimes know things and not know why. If MQ wants to, say, pick a lock, the hive intelligence could pick up the muscle memory and try to transcribe it to JP's movements.

What more, as MQ itself is ridiculously larger than a human consciousness, actually communicating the reasoning behind decisions is going to be difficult (heck, downloading it to JP's brain might be challenging!) You might know that JP taking a step back will cause the supervillian to miss an attack on someone else, but explaining how you knew that might be impossible.

MQ might also find dreaming individuals to be easier to hijack for processing needs. If we assume near unlimited range, brains on the other side of the planet are only 80 ms away. So sleepers will be relatively slow thoughts, but a huge supply of them.

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