Scientifically-plausible alien telepathy

A caveat I will begin this question with is this: this system MUST be entirely organic. In fact it must be EVOLVED. Therefore Ghost in the Shell or Metal Gear-style nanocomms or cranial implants are a no-go, because they rely on man-made technology.

With that out of the way, here's my idea. We already know that a lot of mind-altering fungal spores exist on our planet already, including the infamous "zombie ant" fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. So let's say that on an alien planet a sauropod species evolved both intelligence as well as a symbiotic relationship with a certain kind of mind-altering fungal spore that grows on their outer dermis. Any organism that inhales these fungal spores is susceptible to their psychotropic effects, which manifest when the spores begin to settle and grow in the brain's neocortex, forming a sort of biological transceiver that is uniquely tuned to the saurupod species' brain waves. Using this fungus, these creatures develop language based around telepathic communication, and can communicate their thoughts across language and species gaps, as well as control the motor functions of organisms that have been infected by these fungal spores.

On a scale of one to ten, how plausible is this as a form of telepathy? Would it work on organisms like humans that come from outside their biosphere? Would the fungus die in an organism with reverse chirality to the fungus' own mycoproteins?

• Would the fungus die in an organism with reverse chirality to the fungus' own mycoproteins? Most likely. Our immunological system wouldn't be friends with that. – Renan Jul 18 '16 at 18:59
• "Brain waves" are internal to the nervous system and so couldn't be transmitted in a hard science way. Of course you could have some kind of communication outside of human's range of senses, such as a pheromone or radio wave. – Kys Jul 18 '16 at 19:42
• Any form of communication is indistinguishable from telepathy to an organism that doesn't perceive that medium (sound, EM waves, pheremones, etc.) – Jakob Weisblat Jul 18 '16 at 21:24
• Interesting. From the title, I assumed you were looking for a species that evolved to communicate with each other telepathically. Reading the question, you're looking for a species that can communicate with ANY other species telepathically. Much harder question. Must think... +1. – Ghotir Jul 18 '16 at 21:37
• Language gap, I think, is the hardest part for me; even between human cultures ideas can be vastly different - between species could be mind-boggling. Going to be interesting to see the answers to that. – Ghotir Jul 18 '16 at 21:38

Edit: just now I re-read the question and saw that I missed the part about the sauropods. What I describe below can apply to any species with a brain or some other form of neural network, whether intelligent or not.

Fungi and plants can communicate amongst themselves through chemicals.

Now let's handwave a bit a lot. Let us imagine a fungus that communicates through electromagnetic waves as well. Let it be in the form of microwaves. Perhaps all lifeforms on their planet evolved to communicate thus at some level. This would be to their advantage - they can react much faster to many situations if they can communicate through radio signals. This would require evolution in their planet to have taken a turn different than our own at some point.

Let's say these fungi were bioluminescent in the past, and somehow shifted the frequency of their EM radiation from visible to microwave.

This is quite possible. One reason we can't see into the microwave spectrum is because, in order to see/sense an electromagnetic wave, we need a structure that is about the size of the wavelength involved. Visible light has its wavelengths around the nanometers, and we detect it with molecules within our retinal cells that are nanometers long. In order to "tune" into the microwave spectrum, we would need much larger structures - microwaves have their wavelength between milimeters and meters, units which are a million to a billion times greater than nanometers.

That probbly wouldn't do for our cone and rod cells, but a fungus might be able to evolve such a structure.

Now let's say that some intrepid humans have landed on this planet. Someone is bound to try to eat the fungus at some time. But the fungus isn't like anything which ever evolved on Earth. Most of it will be digested... But its microscopic spores may pierce through the bowels of the mad gourmet. If this doesn't cause the human to bleed to death, then the spores will travel through the bloodstream and eventually settle on some tissue, probably destroying it. Muscles may be destroyed, limbs may be amputated, but if the spores grow in the heart of lungs that's it.

Say that our glutton of a friend was lucky enough that the fungus didn't reach the heart or lungs. It landed on the brain instead. Now the bastard will die because the fungus will grow inside his head, causing the internal pressure of the brain to go way up. Vessels may burst. Dude may go blind or deaf depending on where the fungus is growing.

Ok, so he still didn't die of that, didn't lose any motor skills or sensory capacities, just gut a little stupider than he or she already was. The body's typical immunological response to that is calcifying the strange body that has appeared in the brain.

But that didn't happen. Instead, the fungus stopped growing, and now the neurons of the brain are starting to interface with the cells of the fungus.

Such interface is possible as well. There are people who implant magnets in their fingers so that the nerves of the finger grow around the magnet and interface with it, giving the biohacker a magnetic sense at the fingertips. If neural tissue can do that with non-organic matter, it should be able to do so with a fungus as well.

Congratulations to our crazy xenogastronomer, he or she can now probably sense and/or emit microwaves.

Now all they need is to find someone else with the same combination of genes and blind luck who can eat the fungus and go through the same process, so that they can talk radiotelepathically. I say combinations of genes because there are so many immunological responses to be bypassed, and so much phisiological and physical damage to be survived, that this is truly a dangerous experiment.

At some point people can develop technology to implant a fungal structure in the brain in a safe way. Until then, telepathy will be a gift from mother nature, and the people with the genes that allow one to survive the ordeal of eating the fungus may eventually be selected into a new human species.

• Er, microwaves do not have wavelengths in the order of micrometers. Up to a wavelength of 1 mm it's still classified as far-IR (which spreads more like visible light), not microwave. Microwaves range in fact between 1 mm and 1 m. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electromagnetic_spectrum – leftaroundabout Jul 19 '16 at 13:18
• @leftaroundabout you're right. I corrected that in my answer. Thanks! – Renan Jul 19 '16 at 14:27

In a scenario like this nothing is truly impossible, but some things are improbable.

The first thing you have to establish is how exactly these spores communicate between hosts. Thoughts are awesome and all, but we don't know of any creatures which transmit/broadcast them, or any capable of capturing those sort of transmissions. This is the main plothole in your plan as I see it.

Even if we ignore that, however, you will still be very unlikely to mind control humans. Quite simply, our nervous system, brain structure, and thoughts would be completely alien to these spores.

They may infect us with absolutely devastating consequences (no idea how our immune system might react to this foreign organism), but how would they know what signals and impulses to send in order to perform certain tasks, etc. It's like trying to get a Mac and a Windows machine to play nice - they communicate in different languages, not gonna happen (this is a very low level analogy, please don't get hung up on networking, etc.).

In closing, telepathy implies that you have way of sending and receiving signals - almost instantaneously if you're hoping to mind-control creatures directly. And even if that were the case humans would have such a different biology that most likely the spores would not work on us the same way, or at all.

• Fungal spores capable of transforming alien sauropod nervous systems into bio-radio tranceivers is a stretch. Hard to see how evolution could develop this, and it does suggest it could be a form of super-advanced biotechnology. This contradicts the OP's requirement for naturally occurring telepathy. But telepathy inducing biohypertechnology is a pretty nifty notion. Lots of story potential methinks. – a4android Jul 20 '16 at 9:19
• IP (the Internet Protocol) was devised as the way to get many diverse systems to be able to communicate. None of the original systems originally spoke IP. That many are now speaking IP, either by default or even exclusively, is just a testimony to the versatility of the IP family of protocols (including TCP, UDP, ICMP, IGMP and friends). So if anything, I believe that your point on networking strengthens your argument, rather than detracts from it; IP is more akin to intelligent design than evolution, and OP specifically asks only for ideas that could have evolved. – a CVn Jul 21 '16 at 9:28

In essence what you're describing is biological radio. All the rest about the alien sauropods and the fungal spores are surplus to requirements. Even if an organism had a transceiver in their brain or elsewhere in their nervous system, they couldn't generate radio signals strong enough to broadcast past their skin.

On a score from one to ten for its plausibility, I'd give this zero. Sorry, if that's harsh. Short of coming up with a suitable mechanism for powering a biological radio then it's no go.

Besides the sad truth is that the biological radio concept has been solidly debunked. However, I can give two semi-plausible forms of science-based forms of biological telepathy.

The aliens have abilities like electric eels. They have build up charge in a battery of storage cells and produce short bursts of electric discharges. The aliens also possess the sort of magnetic sensory detection that again electric eels and other underwater creatures possess too. They can detect the discharges. The range won't be brilliant. The discharges might be modulated into a language.

Animals with this ability live in environments where visual contact is extremely difficult like the murky water at the bottom of rivers.

The aliens have massively developed mirror neurones. This means their capacity to read each other's emotions and behaviour would be boosted far beyond anything we mere human beings can do. This would look like telepathy. It's doubtful if they could read humans and vice versa.

• In fact electromagnetically communicating fish are a real thing. – alessandro Jul 19 '16 at 8:30
• Outsmarted by nature again! So electromagnetically communicating sauropods are plausible and not semi-plausible. – a4android Jul 20 '16 at 8:46

We're "telepathic" by way of auditory communication, you could vary this to make aliens that seem supernaturally telepathic if they utilise sound above or below our range of hearing. Ultrasound (higher frequency than we can hear) has an improved information carrying capacity at the price of reduced range, although if you're trying to communicate without being overheard that's actually advantageous. Infrasound (lower frequency than we can hear) has a reduced information carrying capacity but can go further, some large animals (elephants, crocodiles, whales) use this for long range signalling.

Creating Infrasound requires a large muscular diaphram, humans have utilized not-quite-infrasound with war drums to send signals over battlefields, suffice to say your fungus no matter how energetic just isn't going to be mechanically capable of creating that kind of sound. However I imagine (mind you I'm no chemist/geologist) it might be possible for a fungus to grow piezoelectric crystals and use them as a piezoelectric transducer to create ultrasound.

Leave the EM and radiowave communications to cyborgs and robots.

The trouble with telepathy is it cheats. It assumes the transmitter can send a telepathic message without any biological organ to do the transmission and the receiver can pick up the signal without any biological organ to do the receiving.

• You can hear me speak because you have ears and an area of the brain dedicated to processing audio information.
• You can see me speaking sign language because you have eyes, and a visual cortex to process visual information.
• You can feel me tapping out morse code on your skin, because you have touch and pressure sensors. And again bits of brain to interpret them.

A snail (deaf) can't hear me, no matter how loudly I yell. A cave fish (blind) can't see me, no matter how vigorously I wave at it. No receptor organs = no message received.

So, I think you'll have to invent a 'telepathy organ' or organs. You've covered the brain bit in the receiving creature (with your fungus), but it still needs an ear/eye/antenna to pick up the signal and direct it to the correct portion of the brain. And the sauropods need a transmitter. See a4android's answer on biological radio for the realism of this.

The other thing that telepathy tends to forget is signal attenuation. It tends to have huge range with no loss of clarity and no loss of information content. Real world biological signals mostly don't do this. Sperm whales calling in the sound channel are an exception - and that's them taking advantage of physics, not something inherent in their biology (apart from the ability to dive that deep).

One evolutionary path is if the fungus communicated using EM signals.
Electrical synapses use electricity instead of chemicals to communicate with each other. This typically means that they have to be really close together.
But if the fungus began to develop stronger and more sensitive communication cells, then the distance between them could be larger; First basically touching, to a few nanometers apart, then a few millimeters, then a few centimeters, and so on until they developed a kind of long range mesh network. Fungus colonies that are close together would pick up and re-transmit the signal, boosting it in the process.

The more fungus in one area, the larger the distance they can communicate, and if some new fungus moves into range of a signal, it would repeat it, extending the range further still.

As to if they would infect humans, that's really up to you. If the spores either have a coating that cause the bodies defense systems to ignore them, or maybe bypass the defense systems altogether, then why not. The spores could grow/travel along nerves until they reach the area that you want, which would cause the infected nerve paths to act as an antenna for the signal.

There are more than one scientific problems in this case:

1. You should check if the fungus is a parasite or if it's symbiotic. The problem is that there's and advantage for the sauropod, and that's telepathy, but what's the advantage for the fungus? If it needs only the brain as food for grow, it does not need to waste energy in order to give these powers to its guest. There must be an advantage for the fungus in order to allow telepathy.
2. If you want to base telepathy on something related to science, you cannot use chemistry. It's confusing and slow and entropy of reactions is simply too much in order to follow the order needed for communicating. If you want to communicate in real-time, you need a communication channel that's fast enough. I can think for example to Ampullae of Lorenzini of sharks. They are organs that allow to read very weak electric fields to find preys (and that's reality). It take advantage by the salt water that allows to sense electric fields more accurate, but the same principle can be applied. You can have a fungus made by a substance like the jelly one of these organs, and use them to read the weak electrical signals emitted by neurons. Also this is used in reality for electroencephalography for example. This way you can have more solid scientific background for telepathy: brains emit weak electrical signal and fungus are like antennas that allows to receive these signal. The speed is high so the bandwidth of the transmission is sufficient to send brain data in real time and I suppose that the brain of sauropodes are fast enough to elaborate these signals. Fungus can take advantage from this because the guest brain is filled by nutrient during the process, or it became bigger, or something else that repay the fungus for giving the ability to the guest.

It's pretty much impossible.

Communication always requires a medium that acts as a transmitter, you ruled out sound (pressure waves) and sight (visible light waves) because that would not be telepathy.

Some answers have suggested a system similar to that of plants where chemicals are spread into the air, but that would not allow for enough complexity to effectively communicate and would need a specialized organ that is exposed to the surface, which your fungus does not have.

The method we humans use for long-distance communication is radio waves, which a your species couldn't produce because they reqire a metal antenna. A biological organism can't produce antennae. Your fungus would be too small to hold one anyway.

Even if you could, somehow, find a way to make the transmission work, interspecies communication would be impossible. Even if one species could evolve to use a telecommunication protocol (aka a language) based on this, there's no way another species, which evolves independently, would use the same one. This is all the more true if humans travelled to this planet and are supposed to use this without adapting to it. The brain of a human is different from that of an alien so the fungus wouldn't attach to the right parts, but even assuming it does (I'll use the auditory sense for my example), the human couldn't interpret anything. It would just seem random noise, like that of a radio that is not tuned to a specific channel.