Elon Musk has implanted a chip into the brain of a pig. I found the story compelling when I read about it over the weekend. It’s another of his pioneering experiments, this time with a view to having us control phones or computers with our minds sometime in the future. Sounds supernatural, magic, mad! But let’s not go to Musk’s future just yet, let me control your brain by having it time travel to the past. Let’s go back one hundred and fifty years to spy on Mark Twain who knew nothing of the technological revolution that was to come but instead held a strong belief in the phenomenon of a chip-less rapport between two minds.
Mark Twain was fascinated by what he called, ‘mental telegraphy’, and there were a few different ways in which he explained it. One, was the notion that his impulses and ideas came from elsewhere, from someone else. He believed they were transported from someone else’s mind to his. This, he wrote in his autobiography: “I imagine that we get most of our thoughts out of somebody else’s head, by mental telegraphy — and not always out of the heads of acquaintances, but, in the majority of cases, out of the heads of strangers; strangers far removed…” How bizarre. Until these odd little linkages and brain jumps happen to you and then you think, ‘what a wonderful coincidence!’ or, ‘there goes Mark Twain’s mental telegraphy!’ or, ‘who needs Elon’s brain chip!’
Last week I sent a YouTube clip of a song to my sister-in-law in Canada. ‘Listen to this,’ I said in my message. ‘I think it might be a nice one for P. to sing on the guitar.’ She came back within the hour to me to tell me she had been going to email me that day to ask if I had any new song recommendations. An exchange of songs is not something we do with any regularity, believe me. Roll your eyes and shrug by all means, but isn’t it as nice as getting into a cold bed in winter and discovering someone had planted a hot water bottle there in advance as it is to think of someone you’ve not thought of in months and then the phone rings and there they are? (I defy you to tell me that hasn’t happened to you.)
Twain was fixated on this notion: that if he was connected with someone, then they would respond to a need or question of his without him having to write and beg the question. This is from a letter he wrote in 1884: “When I am suddenly and strongly moved to write a letter or inquiry, I generally don’t write it – because I know that that other person is at that moment writing to tell me the thing I wanted to know – I have moved him or he has moved me, I don’t know which – but anyway, I don’t need to write, and so I save my labour.”
I have a niece who takes this to a whole different level effortlessly. She once wanted to learn to knit and went to the local ‘we sell everything’ shop but on her way there she found knitting needles lying in the street. It’s true! Her next cosmic connection was a little less mysterious but no less angelic. She wanted her mother to make her a bag from old jeans for school the next day. (She and her mum are crafty, with a sewing machine constantly on the go; worth keeping an eye on your curtains when they visit so they don’t whip them down to run up a Scarlett O’Hara ballgown.) But on that particular evening, there were no jeans in the house that were yet relegated to the cutting-up pile. Cue doorbell, and the neighbour standing on the step with a bag of clear-out clothes for charity asking if they wanted to go through it before she dropped it off the next day. You guessed it, at the top of the pile was a pair of jeans.
Not that these mind exchanges are always practical in nature. Last week, at an online writing class I attend, we had to write about meeting a famous person. The parameters were wide: anyone, anywhere, we could even make it up. Two out of the five people (and we weren’t even doing this by video, it was all electronic messaging) wrote about meeting Bob Geldof in 1994.
I’ll leave it there and sign off by saying hello to a few people through the little paper aeroplane of my mind. You know who you are.