Not sure if I should break this into two questions, but they are closely related.

A hive mind is usually depicted as being able to communicate instantly across vast distances. However, the scientific community has generally accepted the universal speed limit (USL) to be the speed of light.

Can a Hive-Mind function while obeying the USL while communicating? How would such an entity function and what difficulties would it have expanding? How could it overcome those difficulties?

The problem, I imagine, is like having a mile long arms trying to pick up a glass of water, but the glass and you are moving at different speeds.

My goal with this question is to create a Hive-Mind like create that can work with sub light communication. I wanted it to be semi hard science and obey the universe as we currently know it. My thought is that humans would make contact with this entity that has spreading into our universe. I haven't seen a sub-light Hive-Mind yet and had some ideas I wanted to check.

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    $\begingroup$ You function with a time lag. Nothing happens instantly in your body. In fact, nerve signals in your brain and across your body are stunningly slow compared to light speed. So short answer: no, a hive mind does not imply FTL communication. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Oct 13, 2017 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ I think this would depend on how far apart the members of this hive mind are more than anything else. If they're several lightyears away from one another and still able to communicate, then I think some degree of FTL would be implied, but maybe not the kind that transports ships to faraway places, but rather more like a high-speed mental internet. $\endgroup$
    – Pleiades
    Oct 13, 2017 at 15:07
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    $\begingroup$ This is too many questions and not enough details. What's your actual objective for your universe? Do you want instantaneous communication for your hive mind creatures? Or do you want to know how a hive mind creature would work at sub-light speeds? If you tell us how you want your universe to work, we can help you hammer out the plausibility, but you need to be more specific. $\endgroup$
    – Azuaron
    Oct 13, 2017 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Azuaron You got it. I did want to make a universe hive mind creature would work at sub-light speeds, but I thought that the instant communication was a given. I'll edit my update my question. $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2017 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ You might think of your hive mind as similar to a distributed parallel computer, say a Beowulf cluster with wireless communication links. It takes time for the computations/experiences of one node to be propagated to other nodes, so that time lag has to be accounted for. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Oct 13, 2017 at 17:57

4 Answers 4


A hive mind is not always psychically linked.

A hive mind is usually [portrayed?] as being able to communicate instantly across vast distances.

You're confusing a psychic link with a hive mind. A hive mind is defined by its members putting the colony before the individual. This does not inherently require a psychic link.

A simple example of a hive mind with no psychic link are ants (or bees). The ants themselves (individually) put the colony's needs above their individual needs, and will happily sacrifice themselves for the good of the colony. They do not need a psychic link that forces them to do so.

But I assume your hive mind is psychically linked, based on your question.

This lag is no different from the lag that a non-hive mind galactic empire experiences.

Think about it. If the hive mind is limited to USL, so are radio transmissions, which would be the only way in which a non-hive mind is able to communicate across its galactic empire.

The lag between the hive mind communication is essentially the same as having a debate by writing letters to each other.
It's possible to do so, but the communication is highly inefficient, compared to having a face to face discussion (where you can have a much quicker back and forth, and don't experience long waiting periods before you get a response).

Consider the British Empire in its colonial prime. It would take months for word of the colonies to reach the monarch (and another few months for the monarch's response to reach the colonies); making it nigh impossible for the monarch to directly control the colony.

And what did they do? They appointed regional governors. These governors would remain in the colony, which made them able to govern the colony more efficiently. And they would keep the crown updated on any new developments, at a slower rate than they were able to issue local commands.

How does your hive mind work?

For the sake of simplicity, I think it's fair to assume that a psychic link has a negligible mass, which means that its travel speed approaches the USL.

As others have mentioned, your own body is limited by the USL too. There is lag between you physically touching an object, and your brain receiving the sensory signal.

You do need to ask yourself how your hive mind works. You have a few options here, and they will dramatically change the viability.

1. A psychic communication platform

The members of the hive mind could be able to operate independently, and only use the psychic link as a tool for communication.

This would mean that the difficulties your hive mind would be subjected to are no different from the example of having a discussion by writing letters.

The remote soldier simply lives independently, and communicates to central command when it needs new orders. Command issues new orders, and the soldier then carries on with his new orders.

If this is the case, then you should also ask yourself how capable an individual soldier is. Is he able to adapt, improvise, overcome? Or is he a brainless peon, able to feed himself but otherwise only capable of doing what he's told?

Any further problems you experience would be dependent on how self-reliant the soldier is.

You could also reuse the regional governor example. One member is designated as the "governor", who issues commands to all soldiers nearby. The governor is the only one who is in contact with central command.

The governor will have to be intelligent enough to improvise, adapt, overcome, because it needs to be able to decide a course of action and issue commands.
The soldiers, however, can be brainless peons, who are only capable of doing what they are told by the governor.

There is nothing here that makes it impossible for the hive mind to function. At best, if the communication lag is sufficiently high, it's possible for the members to contradict each other.
For example, central command has accepted a peace treaty with a warring faction. However, it takes several years for the remote colony to receive this information. Until then, they will still be hostile towards the warring faction (and therefore behave differently from the central command, which at first sight is unusual for a hive mind).

However, the same should be true of the warring faction. If the hive mind's psychic commincation (about the peave treaty) travels at the USL, then the warring faction's internal communication is equally limited to the USL.

2. A psychic control platform

A different form of hive mind would be one where the shared consciousness assumes direct control over its members. It's not a system of shared though, but rather one of direct control.

This would be more difficult to maintain over large distances, as the members would be unable to perform any action unless commanded.

In essence, this is like playing a fast-paced multiplayer shooter with a high latency. You'll have a lot of trouble being able to smoothly operate your remote member.
You may be able to get by when you're giving simple commands, but it would give you a lot of trouble in fast-paced situations (such as combat or imminent danger).

In essence, I would expect a hive mind to become less skilled in both combat and diplomacy, rendering them less powerful as an empire.

What if the psychic connection has a limited range?

I'm probably going off-track from your original intentions here, but if your hive mind generally works under the principle of assuming direct control over its members, that may open up an interesting question:

What happens if the control is interrupted?

Do they drop dead? Do they go into panic mode? Do they become catatonic?

Or, if you want to, you could give hive mind members a mind of their own when they are not being controlled by the hive mind. As a quick analogy: just like how Neo disconnected from the Matrix, a hive mind member can wake up from the control that it was subjected to.

Like an ant without a colony, a lone member would not survive for long. It has never been taught to be self-reliant. And sadly, a hive mind colony puts itself above the individual, which would render the colony unwilling to perform a rescue mission.
If the member finds its way back to the colony (= in psychic range), then they can be reintegrated. But it's likely that a disconnected member (wo has always been controlled by the central command) lacks the skill to find its way home (other than though pure luck, of course).

This would mean that a hive mind colony is naturally limited to how far its zone of control reaches. It cannot possibly outgrow these boundaries, because any member that travels beyond this boundary disconnects from the hive mind and makes their own decisions (thus no longer being part of the hive mind).

To overcome such a situation, your hive mind would have to create a new control center, but that violates the basic principle of it being a hive mind (since you now have two separate hive minds).

If you don't split off into two hive minds, the only other way to increase the size of the colony would be trying to extend the range of the signal. One way to extend the signal would be through the use of technology (e.g. spaceships with a psychic antenna).

However, due to the aforementioned problems with controlling remote members, it's also possible that the hive mind has decided to not try and extend its psychic range, since it's very difficult to do anything properly with a high latency.

  • $\begingroup$ I like this answer and it works perfectly for what I wanted to accomplish, along with giving some more ideas to throw around. I really like the comparison to the regional governors. I'll probably use something similar for the solar systems control and "completely autonomous" "scouts" to make first contact. There could even be wars between the governors all trying to do their best for the collective. $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2017 at 17:08

In a universe that obeys the cosmic speed limit, you could not have a hive mind with a central "brain" somewhere in the galaxy that instantly controls the actions of all the drones everywhere. Instead, each planet, station, and ship (heretofore referred to as "entities") would be able to function independently and make its own decisions, all while using standard lightspeed communication (e.g. radio or laser pulses) to communicate with other entities, synchronize information, take orders, and pass on information.

Rather than a uniform, Borg-like hive mind, you'd have a network more closely resembling computer networks. There could well be a central nexus where information from across the galaxy flows and orders originate from (perhaps on these creatures' home planet), but there's be a hierarchical network of entities (planets they've taken over, ships and space stations they've built, even individuals off doing their own thing) that exchange information, but operate independently, allowing them to respond to things more quickly than speed-of-light delays would allow the central nexus to.

  • $\begingroup$ I like this idea but then we get to the problem that to be more efficient you make the pieces smaller and more independent. And then I would think you would get to the point that you just have a bunch of people doing their own thing. $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2017 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ After reading the other answers I see this is actually the approach I wanted to go with, If I could chose your answer as well I would. $\endgroup$ Oct 13, 2017 at 17:11

Say that your hive mind works by pooling its members' brain power. If you have one or your hive minded entities alone, it has one mind that operates in its brain alone. If it comes into contact with another one of its kind, their brains begin to communicate, merging their previously separate personalities and memories into a single blended mind that operates across both brains. If they fall out of contact, each brain begins operating separately again.

The same thing happens at large scales. A billion member homeworld hive mind can send a million of its members to colonize another planet, splitting the hive mind. The minds are separate and will diverge as they have different experiences. But, then they just send messengers back and forth. As each messenger arrives, carrying the new memories of the other mind, it is absorbed bringing the receiving mind into sync with the sender. Then, it doesn't matter if the minds are physically separated; they'll still behave as if they were connected because they have the same thoughts, goals, etc. Hmm, kind of like a high-latency hive mind composed of low-latency hive-minds composed in turn of extremely low-latency individual minds.

Depending on the needs of your story, you could say that separated entities keep a perfect copy of the blended mind or that they start to revert to the individual's preexisting traits.

Memories are another area you can play with. Depending on how the hive mind stores its memories, it could have perfect memory going back to its origin, if you decide that nothing is lost when individuals perish. Conversely, you can say each memory is only held in one or a few brains. If the wrong set of individuals perish, the hive mind wouldn't remember its WorldBuilding account's password.


So there is no set criteria on how a hive mind works exactly simply because they don't yet actually exist

If you truly want an answer to your question you should decide how your hive mind physically is able to communicate through telepathy.

For instance they could biologically achieve telepathy by transmitting and receiving thoughts through radio waves. Since radio waves are on the EM spectrum they can only travel at the speed of light.

There are pros and cons for any communication medium you choose. EM communication is limited to line of sight, distance [density], and the speed of light.

As for difficulties of telepathy with EM communication

A Hive mind does not mean a singular controller. If anything it's more akin to a pure democracy without all the arguing and protracted debates. Say your species occupies two worlds. So what would likely occur is the hive mind would delegate decision making to clusters based on communication lag. So if your species occupies 2 worlds there would essentially be 2 hive minds responsible for the independent governance of that world. Decisions on what the species as a whole would do would occur between those two minds.

The Borg from Star Trek was a great example of this. The more isolated and smaller a group of its members became, the more independent their decision making became.

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    $\begingroup$ Quantum entanglement doesn't mean meaningful information can be transmitted. See no-communication theorem. This is in no way personal as you're by no means the only person to repeat this blatantly false idea, but I am seriously sick and tired of seeing this nonsense being restated over and over. $\endgroup$
    – AngelPray
    Oct 13, 2017 at 15:23

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