This article also appeared in Science In My Fiction
A common characteristic of “advanced races” in science-fiction is the ability to communicate without using speech, gestures, or writing, but with their brains. Telepathy can be an inherent ability powered by “magic”, or it can be granted by implanted radios. Though one has to wonder what kind of effect this has on their society, specifically relating to their ability to keep secrets or to deceive one another.
Some say that relationships, and by extension civilizations, are founded on lies and held together by secrets. I expect that would be very hard if everyone could read everyone else’s minds. If such a society existed they would either have to be completely honest and keep no secrets from one another; or they’d make scanning another’s thoughts without permission a serious taboo or crime. In fact, one might expect a naturally telepathic species to be colonial organisms.
And as for collective consciousnesses, most portrayals involve each member broadcasting their every thought to everyone else in the collective, unless they’re all remotes controlled by the queen of course. This shouldn’t be a problem if they are all born into the hive like ants are, but if they were individually sapient beings (such as humans) who joined together as adults their individual pasts might come into conflict. If, for example, a married couple were to join such a group mind would it bring them closer, or tear them apart?
Some possibilities for writing:
• Humanity encounters a telepathic alien race that can only read each other’s minds, human brains are closed to them except through conventional communication. They have no concept of deception and cannot tell when humans are lying to them.
• In the near future brain-computer interfaces are ubiquitous and allow full thought-to-thought communication between two or more people. Someone develops a program similar to Twitter except that it posts thoughts instead of short texts.
• Software that allows constant mental communication between multiple people is developed and becomes the next big thing, followed by a surge of divorces and violent crime.