I thought only Vulcans on tv could mind meld

November 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

We have so far in this alien linguistics mini series looked at a scientific approach to alien communication and analysed how Hollywood has imagined alien English, but there is also another angle to explore.

Beginning in the sixties, the latest extension to the little-green-man discourse (okay most people talk about the greys these days) is the alien abduction narrative. This controversial phenomenon is worth serious study for a number of reasons; revealing tensions between academic disciplines, adding fuel to the recovered memory debate as well as disturbing answers to the are they out there/already here question.

I am not saying I believe or disbelieve the countless narratives provided by people who seem to be ordinary about extraordinary encounters with alien beings. I also can see the sense of the analysis suggest that these discourse are about the fear of the eroding interface between technology and the human body as well as the ecomessage from space theme that many report. I am entirely convinced though by the argument that simply because the narratives are so similar that they can be discounted as either planted by the hypnotist/therapist or are culturally learnt discourses that these people reproduce. But what I think is interesting for linguists is the way in which the communication between the aliens and the abductees is reported. Here I draw on  encounters reported in Mack (1994), a widely read and discussed publication by a Harvard Psychiatry professor.

Aliens, it seems, are able to communicate without recourse to the spoken word. Nothing unusual in that, Signed Languages are part of the stock of human language – but aliens seem also devoid of a gestural language – hands too busy with the probes, I guess. Instead, abduction narratives suggest aliens are able to communicate directly with the brain, i.e. telepathically or as Mack (1994, p.37) puts it:

Communication between the aliens and humans is telepathic, mind to mind, thought to thought, with no specific common learned being necessary.

ET, throw away your speak and spell!

Here are how some of the abductees describe it:


The figure, perhaps sensing this [uncomfortable feeling], “gave me some sort of blanket or big towel or something” She seemed to sense his thoughts without his saying anything, reassuring Ed, for example, that they were safe and would not fall of the precipice onto the rocks below. Ed was sexually excited, and the female being “sense my horniness”.

“Then she started explain things to me.” Ed wanted to write things down so he could remember later, but she would not let jim and ” just worked at my perception, my awareness, sort of mind to mind.” Sensing his frustration she assured him, “you will remember when you need to know”


When I {Mack} asked her how this information was communicated to her she said “I just know. I know what he’s thinking.  he communicates, but he can’t tell you how.”

Both of these abductees are hazy on the mechanics of communication. Perfectly reasonable if they are in a high state of anxiety (and/or horniness in Ed’s case). But it also reveals one of the problems of telepathy. While it seems to be away of avoiding the question what languages do Aliens speak and how do they understand humans, and vice versa, it simply moves the question to “how does telepathy work?”

Mind to mind communication seems to suggests that the communicative message is projected into the brain of the receiver. What would such a message consist of. Well try it now, send a message to a friend of yours by thinking very hard about them and the message you wish to send them. It could be as simply as “buy me a cheeseburger”.  Wait 15 minutes and see if one arrives.

No, seriously – what did you do? I think your options are – chanting something like “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger” or “Buy me a cheeseburger” while looking at a mental image of your friend. In the first instance, both of these messages are linguistic. That is we might hear our voice in our head chanting the word/sentence … In English … back to the language problem. If you were smart(er than me) you might have visualised a cheeseburger and sent that mental image to a friend. But how interpretable is that. If humans could send a telepathic image message, how would it be received. With spoken language the sound stream is analysed and then parsed. How would we parse a cheeseburger. Someone wants a cheeseburger? Someone just ate a cheeseburger? Someone is afraid of cheeseburgers? are all possible interpretations. Say you are supersmart and sent a mental movie of them going to a burgerbar, buying one and driving over to your place. This would still be ambiguous and probably more so given that there are now more events encoded in the visual message.

So both a language message and a message analysis of telepathy have problems. Perhaps a kind of pre-language message might be the answer. By pre-linguistic I mean at the semantic level. When we put together sentences we build them out of syntactic structures that are able to encode events. These might be structured and put together before language specific rules and words take over. If this deep structure message was sent, I think there would still be issues in interpretation. Frames of events might be sent, but how would negation of a proposition be dealt with or a message with an action that is intended to be habitual?

Telepathy, the abductees’ answer to how aliens communicate is just as problematic as the naked and waving male on the side of the Pioneer vehicle. It raises questions of interpretation as well questions about transmission. One interesting difference in the assumptions the scientists and the experiencers of alien abduction behind their messages. The Pioneer message encodes human scientific and rational achievement. Scientists are clear that science is the common bond between alien and earthling. The abduction accounts, however, suggest something difference. The abduction stories tell us that aliens are interested in our minds and can interpret emotions. I think this difference reveals a fundamental difference in the nature of aliens and their interest in us. These different ways of understanding what aliens want is also revealed in the assumptions about human-alien interaction and communication


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