Suppose we have a civilisation which is made up of many creatures sharing a single hive mind. Each creature can see, hear and remember what each other member of the species (or possibly hive) has seen heard and experienced, they think and make decisions as one. Range limits are acceptable.

They are not using magic, this is a purely biological trait, it's also safe to assume there are no physical nerves between each member of the collective.

Could a species evolve this way, if so how would the mechanism work?

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    $\begingroup$ You might want to add "can a species achieve this." I haven't done any research, but I don't know if this is possible. $\endgroup$
    – DonyorM
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 7:06
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    $\begingroup$ @DonyorM good thinking, it's one of those common SciFi Tropes which we all see, I want to know how unrealistic is it! $\endgroup$
    – Liath
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 7:08
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    $\begingroup$ Would you say that this is a science-based question? $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 7:10
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild I would - good tag $\endgroup$
    – Liath
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 7:12
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    $\begingroup$ You should read "Pandora's Star" for an excellent hard-science (no telepathy or improbable biology involved) sci fi novel that features a hive mind alien...it covers all their evolution and how the hive mind works in pretty good detail as you read the book. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 16:10

8 Answers 8


The Problem:

Telepathy is defined as "Transfer of information on thoughts or feelings between individuals by means other than the five classical senses". That leaves some form of communication not detectable by human senses, though not necessarily some form of communication not detectable by human technology. The question also specifies evolution of such an ability, so this would imply that it is of biological, not technological origin.

Since such tropes as "psionic radiation" or "mental waves" that can be transmitted from one human to another have been not been shown to be anything more than fairy tales by science, we cannot presuppose that they exist for another species.


However, this leaves quite a large range of possibilities for communication that is not detectable by human senses. The electromagnetic spectrum covers a wide range of frequencies, most of which (with the notable exception of the visual spectrum) is not detectable by human senses. Detectable by human instruments, perhaps (I'll discuss that "perhaps" later), but detection by human instruments isn't the definition. There is also the possibility of sonic communication using frequencies not audible to humans, manipulation of magnetic fields, and emission of pheromones not detectable by human olfaction. So, there are possibilities for "undetectable" communication.

Process of Elimination

If a species is to communicate memories, thoughts and sensory data at a rate that allows them to think and make decisions in a corporate manner, then whatever form of communication they use is going to require a very high bandwidth. This means that whatever form of communication they use is going to have to be high frequency, as studies in data transmission have shown that the higher the frequency of the carrier, the more data it is able to encode per unit time. This then immediately eliminates pheromones (which are inherently slow) and low frequency sound. There are still a lot of possibilities remaining.

Another characteristic of Telepathy is that it is long ranged. When we consider sonic communication, we find that low frequency sounds travel much further than high frequencies, however we have ruled out low frequency sound as having too low a bandwidth, so this effectively rules out sound almost entirely. When we examine the electromagnetic spectrum, we find that the highest frequencies (above the ultraviolet end of the visible spectrum) are blocked by an atmosphere similar to our own (but they may not be in another atmosphere), as is most of the infrared part of the spectrum, and some (but by no means all) of the frequencies in the infrared and microwave parts of the spectrum. Lower frequency microwaves and higher frequency radio waves are long-ranged in a terrestrial-type atmosphere, though long-wave radio is not.

So, the best candidate for high speed data transmission is microwave radiation. This leaves the question of how a life-form might go about generating such radiation. The following is educated speculation.

Evolutionary Prerequisites

The highest likelihood for "telepathy" is in a species that is able to precipitate a variety of metals in a variety of forms. (This also requires an environment high in metals.) If such a species was using metal to enhance its neural transmission rates (electrical transmission is vastly faster than human nerves' sodium-gate depolarization system), which is in itself a highly advantageous strategy in evolutionary terms, it is likely that creatures using metal as a nerve conduction rate booster would have found that unshielded nerves would cause radiation detectable not only within a creature's own body, but in other creatures too. As faster nerve conduction is too great an advantage to give up, shielding would have evolved, most likely by running nerves through the centers of metal bones. However, the possibilities of transmission and detection of EM radiation means that not all metal nerves would have evolved to be completely shielded, some could be partially shielded and be used to detect EM radiation, while with higher voltages (as demonstrated by the electric eel), other neuron-evolved organs could generate EM radiation of reasonable power.


We then get to the point of bandwidth. EM radiation emission may well have begun at lower radio frequencies, but it is entirely possible that mechanisms could have evolved to increase the frequency of emitted radiation. Since a system of this type could have practically each neuron driving an EM transmitter of a different frequency, high bandwidth can be achieved by rapid changes in signal amplitude and frequency that is allowed by using high-frequency EM radiation, and also by multiplexing - using many frequencies simultaneously. This could allow an evolved bandwidth many times greater than our own Wi-Fi communication, which would also be somewhat directional. Another argument for higher radio frequencies and microwaves is that smaller antennas are required.

Since all this bandwidth is relatively easily achieved in evolutionary terms - simply by duplicating the relevant organs - there is no reason why the beings would not evolve to make use of this bandwidth. Since the highest intelligences of species on earth are found in those creatures with an active social life (and this ability makes for a great social life), the evolution of intelligence is pretty much a given.

Bandwidth comparison

If we consider the data bandwidth of the human voice (not the bitrate required to duplicate the sounds accurately, but the actual volume of data it conveys), humans may be able to achieve a data rate of perhaps a few hundred bytes per second at most, including the emotional sideband on top of the raw data. Our hypothetical telepathic aliens could achieve a data bandwidth in the order of tens to hundreds of megabytes per second.

Our telepathic aliens would need very fast brains to process all of this data, but fortunately since they incorporate metal in their neural structures, this is somewhat easier to achieve. The main bottleneck would be chemical neurotransmitters - if they used them. Fortunately, there are other possibilities for cell-to-cell communication. One possibility is an electrical connection, the other is a mechanical connection. Either of these are equally possible, and neither provides particular advantages over the other.


Given all this data bandwidth and a brain capable of processing it, it is entirely possible that each of these beings could communicate highly detailed messages - certainly including thoughts, memories, queries and answers - with a number of its fellows. Considering that much of their brains would be involved in running and interpreting the "telepathic" communication, they may not have all that much capacity remaining for actual original thought, so on an individual basis they may not be much more intelligent than a human, quite possibly somewhat less so, however they do not really need to be any more intelligent on an individual basis given that when they have a problem that they need to solve and cannot do so on their own in a reasonable time, all they have to do is ask a few friends and share the load of considering all the options. Considering the range of microwave communication, these friends need not even be within visible range, they could be hundreds of kilometers away.

Sharing of memories would happen almost automatically as individuals added them as context to the problems they are asking for help with, and the advantage of shared experiences cannot be underestimated.


As for detectability by human technology, an evolved pattern of communication over multiplexed amplitude and frequency modulated radio and microwave bands could certainly be detected, but it would most likely be fantastically difficult to interpret, and to the uneducated and unsuspecting observer (who is most likely detecting "interference" on only one frequency at a time) would find it hard to distinguish from noise. Anyone ever actually listened to a 56k modem on their phone line? It sounds a lot like static. It would require extensive computer support and years of work to even begin to interpret communication like this.

Social Organization

Since higher frequency microwaves (that can carry more data) are attenuated by the atmosphere more than lower frequency emissions, these beings would be able to communicate faster with nearer compatriots than more distant ones, and this would give them the tendency to form regionally-restricted social groups rather than a single global society.


As to what these beings may look like, I imagine them with mobile structures that would look a little like short, thick tentacles that house the microwave transmitters and receivers. They would also be very likely to have inhumanly fast reaction times given the speed of their nerves that is necessary for their mode of communication. They would most likely be able to see some frequency of visible light and be able to hear, but the limits of their vocal communication - if they were capable of that at all - may be some sort of sound that communicates little more than a threat, warning or submission to other species that do not share their mode of communication. I leave the rest to your imaginations.

  • $\begingroup$ I imagine encoding would play a factor in bandwidth too! How on earth would you encode feelings!? $\endgroup$
    – Liath
    Commented Sep 25, 2014 at 8:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Liath, humans manage to encode feelings in verbal communication, and even written communication, so I have no doubt that a telepathic species would be able to do so too. Actually, with all that raw bandwidth, I would expect several different encodings (languages), and I expect that the encodings would probably be more idiosyncratic than totally efficient. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Sep 25, 2014 at 9:45
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild Is it plausible that these hives would have some sort of "queen" that is less mobile but has significantly more bandwidth and processing power? $\endgroup$
    – overactor
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 14:06
  • $\begingroup$ @overactor, yes that is a possibility. A caste system could be pretty much a separate issue, so the "hive" might be a collection of similar individuals, or a queen/worker/etc system. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 at 15:29
  • $\begingroup$ Does it really have to be 'telepathic' though? The question seems to focus just on a hive mind. Dropping that restriction would open up even more possibilities, though I think microwave could still be the best. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Oct 29, 2014 at 14:02

I'm sure this won't be as hard science as one might be expecting but the questions certainly made me think. Of course the first order of business would be some form of what we currently call telepathy. At first blush this seems truly of the science fiction realm. However, we have electronic equipment that can talk to each other with energy waves. Though it is also true that humans do the same thing, we just use sound waves instead of electromagnetic waves.

Currently telepathy is a kind of magic where thoughts in one head are transferred to another. We do that all the time with the slow analogue transfer of verbal communication which isn't error proof.

Current Science

There are studies of reading brain activity with head sensors for a whole host of different tasks, from making bionic limbs for amputees, to game interactivity. There have already been privacy concerns for different brain reading technologies. They are each having different levels of success. I also found they are working with different technology to Hack the brain, the study was finding ways to help people learn faster and improve cognition. Now once we have computers that can read and write to the brain coupled with wireless technology we might become 'telepathic' in a couple decades.

Hive Mind

I would think communicating with a very high bandwidth would be the primary goal of 'hive mind telepathy'. So for a hive mind, all the members are going to be 'broadcasting' all the time, so there would be a low 'hum' at all times (like a beehive) and any could 'channel surf' through the different channels. As such each individual would be able to repeat or rebroadcast what they are seeing from someone else etc. For this to be a biological solution, some kind of data rich em wave would have to be generated.

The biggest difference between speech and telepathy is the volume and accuracy of the data being transferred between individuals.

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    $\begingroup$ Experiments with rats have been done demonstrating a successful and effective use of electronic telepathy. Each rat had a sensor and transmitter that communicated their brain's electronic impulses to the other. Nature.com “A Brain-to-Brain Interface for Real-Time Sharing of Sensorimotor Information” $\endgroup$
    – KRyan
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 13:51
  • $\begingroup$ Very cool! Is there a link for that? $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ right, I can't imagine every single individual remembering everything about everyone forever. Most of us can barely give a detailed description of what we did 3 days ago. $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ @NauticalMile I don't think there was any indication in the linked Brain-to-Brain Interface experiment that the memories of the encoder rat were transferred to the decoder rat and stored locally. The experimenters seemed to draw the conclusion that the decoder rat simply used the encoder rat's memories in order to perform the task, while they were linked together. In other words, if we are all linked together, we effectively become our own cloud network of information. $\endgroup$
    – KRyan
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ However, if this mesh mind style of communication were to work by proxy it would function more like a hive mind IMO. By proxy I mean that if member A is in range of member B and member B is in range of member C (while A is not in range of C), A can still access C's experiences, where B acts as a proxy. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 17:34

Additional to bowlturner Answer:

Pheromones and hormones could establish a Hive mind communication.

When you build up some feelings your mind sets your body in the mood by giving hormones your the blood, so the Organs know "now is feelings time!" and stop with their normal work. When your Body is the "Hive" with the Organs as the slaves to that "Hive" you could easily see the Hormones as one kind of communication beside the nerve system.

The Wikipedia article for ants says:

Ants communicate with each other using pheromones, sounds, and touch.

Your creatures could all send the pheromones over their lungs to the atmosphere. Only creatures not on a connected location or in range would be separated from the mind.

Special Organs that are sensitive to highly swinging sound levels

Additional to the answer with the hormones, if you don't like to put Hormones in your atmosphere. Let them develop a internal organ that works like an ear but in higher frequencies. The organ gives than the hormones to the body and also amplify the sound it becomes to it surroundings. So in the middle of a crowd you would have much more hormones than in your home but still enough to be connected to other creatures. ALSO this version of Hive mind could be broadcast by sound systems.

Example for "Organs" that make Hive minds possible by the Borg

The collective is broadcast over a subspace domain similar to that used by the transporter.

In one Particular episode of Voyager you can see Seven of nines Brain, and the subspace device the hive mind uses.

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    $\begingroup$ I really didn't want to change "frequentsies"... I think that's my new favourite word! Thanks for your answer! $\endgroup$
    – Liath
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Liath thanks again for the correction... my "wordbuilding" skills are like pro! $\endgroup$
    – Fulli
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ yes pheromones could certainly be used to increase the bandwidth for communication. Great point! $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ @bowlturner, Pheromones don't provide much bandwidth, since they are highly prone to being "smeared" by air currents. This means that there have to be distinct gaps between emissions of each of the different pheromone compounds. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 16:18
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild I can see that, I was thinking they would be more accents to the rest of the communication, all by them selves, they are limited. $\endgroup$
    – bowlturner
    Commented Sep 24, 2014 at 16:21

Information is encoded in the connections between neurons. It can also be encoded in alternative ways, as a sort of floppy disk or pendrive, like proteine chains.

Suppose that a species has the ability of encoding an individual's brain info into proteine chains, and decoding received proteine chains into neuronal connections. In this way, physical contact between individuals can transfer any information between them, effectively making them share all experiences and knowledge.

In this way, an isolated individual has all the knowledge of the last time it was at the hive or contacted such another individual, but not any info after that. Transfer is not instantaneous like telephaty, and then if one of these individuals finds a soldiers outpost and is killed by the space marines or whatever, the colony (the hive) will not have the information. This makes the point for the characters to kill every species individual that can have seen or heard them.

This knowledge sharing mechanism does not implicate any intelligence. Information is simply shared, and it may be the amount of shared knowledge what makes sense of each knowledge piece, or the summed up intelligence of each tiny individual, or some sort of queen or braineds subspecie.

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    $\begingroup$ Indeed, chemical information sharing (although not of learned information) happens all the time between bacteria, by exchange of DNA (which is nothing but an information-storage molecule). $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 10:33

To answer your question, we need to find a way or ways for individuals to quickly and accurately share information. In insect species we see several means of communication.

Dancing/movements: bees communicate with one another through intricate movements. Since you will likely want to communicate more detailed information quicker than bees do, you could have specialized appendages that signal other creatures at the speed of light. You could skip the middleman and just have creatures that can emit specific wavelengths of light that they can precisely see and understand. This would travel at the speed of light but break on line of sight.

You can alternatively use sound. To communicate so much information your creatures would probably emit a constantly modulating drone and have extraordinary hearing that can differentiate the sounds coming out. This method would be slower than light but can bend around obstacles, making it potentially more reliable around rough terrain.

Other posters have gone in depth on various means of telepathy, but I would like to mention electroreception. This is present in sharks, bees and some other animals. It allows these creatures to sense changes in electricity, another way to transmit information. Nerves are electrical impulses. Perhaps your creatures are so sensitive and their nerves unique enough that they can read nerve pulses right out of each others heads and communicate that way.

  • $\begingroup$ Note that also purposeful generation of significant electricity exists in animals like the electric eel. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 10:37

this is a purely biological trait, it's also safe to assume there are no physical nerves between each member of the collective.

Just to open up the possibilities, why do we need nerves? What do they do?

Nerves transmit information from one place in a body to another. Outside of the brain itself, that is their primary job. So what's so special about nerves? Not much, other than they have good bandwidth and are remarkably hard to hijack to force a body to do something it didn't want to do.

All you need to do is focus on the traits you need:

  • Good latency
  • High bandwidth
  • Hard to hijack

Now, for your requirements:

Each creature can see, hear and remember what each other member of the species (or possibly hive) has seen heard and experienced, they think and make decisions as one.

Many of these requirements can be extrapolated from things humans do today!

Most visualizations of a hive mind assume "can see and hear what each other member of the species has seen or heard" means something along the likes of a movie being downloaded. The bandwidth of this is highly unrealistic, and would quickly limit the growth of a hive mind. But consider "Big Data," the art of processing data like what Google has to deal with. In there, you don't transmit all of the data to everyone (that would be petabytes of data). Instead, you send out small programs to all of the nodes to analyze the data, and report back a succinct message with results. I would expect this to be a more realistic biological hive mind. This also suggests that not ever member of the collective has access to 100% of the mind's experiences instantaneously. There would be a time delay as the Big Data style command propagates through the hive. Their culture would adapt to this.

We can also look at the military. The military has devised low bandwidth hand signals to accomplish great levels of communication with low risks of their communication being hijacked. They also have drum-corps, which require synchronized stepping so exacting that it is hard to think of them as 100 individuals. Better to think of them as 1 corps.

Finally, consider professional dancing. When we see an astonishing performance by a duo, it's often exclaimed that "they looked like one fluid body." This suggests that we have, with touch, already gotten close to the "many bodies - one mind" ideal of a hive mind.

Happy world building!.


A hive mind may require the assistance of the environment it evolved on: an atmosphere or a planet surface that is highly conducive for sound or for electrical signals would make it possible for individuals to relay data into it and have it quickly propagate to all the other members.

Evolving to perceive these messages in a parallel manner, via multiple, external dendrite-like structures would make it possible for members of the species to act as if the planet itself were part of their own body.

Just as we humans perceive nervous signals from our extremities as instantaneous, even if they do take a few milliseconds to reach our brains and be processed into sensations, so would members of this species evolve to perceive even distant signals as part of a continuous present perception.


Technically hive-mind implies two things:

Very high bandwidth ranged communication channel

The channel use is automated with information flowing from node to node automatically.

Neither of these is particularly implausible or even difficult. The difficult part would be an environment where that level of processing power would be useful. It is commonly thought that the nodes in the hivemind can be "dumb", but actually this doesn't make sense. A high bandwidth communication channel would require a highly developed brain anyway. So there would need to be some intrinsic value in the information channel itself.

Maybe a need to very rapidly react as a group to changes in environment could explain this? A social insect could evolve faster and faster communications as the scale and speed of required responses increases. Most likely mechanism for such use would be sound. An array of resonators with different frequencies with modulated amplitude? Such resonators would probably naturally resonate with other nearby resonators and if they evolved from an automated warning mechanism they'd be directly linked to the nervous system. With the communication channel relatively fast in relation to individual brain power this would create a semi-plausible path to hive-mind. And acoustic resonators could evolve into microwave resonators allowing greater range and bandwidth.

There would also need to be some reason not to use the chemical systems real-world insects actually use. Maybe the situations would change so fast that the persistence of the chemical markers would become a handicap?


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