In part 1, I explained that the imminant advent in my supers campaign of a character who is a powerful psionic has had me thinking about Telepathy quite a bit recently. I then began to excerpt selected rules and background material from the campaign rules relating to the subject. The first part focussed on the metagame and game mechanics concepts around which psionics is built within the campaign (while sparing the readership of as much of the game mechanics as possible). There was also some information roleplaying a psionic character and GMing psionics.
Part two is rather smaller than part 1 – essentially, it’s overflow – and looks at a theoretical psuedo-science “Biology” of psionics.
Part three will actually be the post that I originally intended to make – everything in parts 1 and 2 is preamble!
So hold onto your hats – it’s about to get all organic and squishy…
The Biology Of Psionics
It would surprise a lot of people to learn that the cerebral cortex – the part of the brain that does all our higher thinking – is only three millimeters thick. And that there is not enough room in our heads for much more than that. Small wonder that a lot of science fiction describes people with grotesquely swollen heads!
Normal Brain Function
The general mechanisms of the brain are divided up into a number of regions. The left side controls the functions of the right side of the body (in general), and vice-versa. Across the crown and down each side runs a furrow called the Central Fissure. The ridge to the rear of this (the primary somatosensory cortex) receives information from the body’s senses, in the order (top to bottom) Feet, Trunk, Hands, Fingers, Face, Lips, and Tongue. In other words, these functions run upside-down relative to the location within the body. Underneath the lowermost of these is a region that deals with the sense of hearing, the Primary Auditory Cortex. At the extreme back of the head, mostly on the inner surface of the Cerebral Cortex, is the primary visual cortex.
Each Primary sensory area of the brain sends information to areas adjacent to it called the Sensory Association Cortex, which makes up the Parietal Lobe (upper rear part of the brain) and Temporal Lobe (sides of the brain). This is where perception takes place, which is actually the analysis of the sensory information being fed to the brain. This is also where memories are stored. The parts closest to a sensory area deal exclusively with that sensory system, eg the parts closest to the Priamry Visual Cortex only deal with visual information and visual memories. Those sections that are a little more remote receive information from multiple senses and thus deal with more complex associations of sensory information. Some functions are quite centralised to a single area, for example there are specific points near the temples that contain our verbal vocabularies, our understanding of speech, etc. Many brain functions are not divided by physical sensory source (the word “Gate” doesn’t mean one thing when heard through the left ear and another when heard through the right, for example). In general, the left-hand hemisphere of these parts of the brain concentrate on analysis of information (the comprehension and indentification of specific details) while the right-hand hemisphere deals with synthesis of information (the combination of perceptions into an overall impression). Left-hand functions include talking, speech, reading, and writing; Right-hand functions include drawing sketches (especially of three-dimensional objects), comprehending road maps and other diagrams, and so on. It also includes (in the right Temporal Lobe) the comprehension of rythms and tonal patterns – ie music – as well as the ability to locate the source of a sound in a three-dimensional environment. In fact, if it’s got anything to do with three dimensions, expect it to be in the right-hand hemisphere. (Nb: in some people these sides are reversed. No-one knows why.)
When sensory information is received by the brain, it gets sent toward the back of the head to the Sensory Association Cortexes for analysis. It is also passed forwards and inwards. The analysed information is also fed forwards. The forwards flow of information is to the Primary Motor Cortex, at the front of the brain (and this shows where most of those old sci-fi shows got it wrong). The primary motor cortex is responsible for Planning, Strategy, self-awareness, response to emotional stimuli, control of speech, and abstract thought (so maybe the SF wasn’t quite so far wrong after all). Initiative, thinking speed, combining words into meaningful sentances and dialogue, and the ability to foresee consequences are also aspects of the Frontal Cortex. Once again, the rule of thumb seems to be left = analysis and right = synthesis, (reversed in some cases) but these are not distinguished as clearly in the Frontal Cortex. For example, the ability to express thoughts in language, ie to form sentences, sounds more like a synthesis function, but in most people, Broca’s Area (the part of the Frontal Cortex that deals with this ability) is on the left (near the left temple, in fact). Either that means that the general understanding of the process involved is wrong, or the functions are not as clearly seperated. (This also suggests that a personality is not defined by the way we think, but by what we have learned to do with these thoughts. Behaviour is the most accurate term for it, hence the justification for attempts at prisoner reform. It also shows why – since (short of brain injury or illness) we never forget something, those attempts are largely doomed to failure – the criminal behaviour “button” can never be disconnected, it can always be pushed by the right stimulus. The best that can be done is to give an alternative).
Right next to, and just forwards of the central fissure, is the Primary Motor Cortex. This sends specific signals to specific muscles to cause a physical action to take place. These are arranged in exactly the same sequence, top to bottom, as the sensory information. The part of the Frontal Cortex right next to these areas of the brain also contains memories – but these are memories of physical response to stimuli at a muscular level. Once again, the closest areas deal with individual parts of the body, while those further removed deal with larger and more abstract coordinated functions. When we learn to walk, the memories of the hundreds of muscle changes involved is stored here, for example. Learning how to pick up an egg without crushing the shell is another example. When our senses report something, this is the part of the brain that decides how to react. Learning to move the hands and feet and eyes in a coordinated fashion – necessary for driving, or playing the piano, or riding a bycicle – it all happens here.
It was also mentioned a while back that information received by the Primary Somatosensory Cortex (the part of the brain where we began this journey) feeds downwards toward the brain stem. In fact, this is not quite true – it flows forwards and then may flow downwards from the Primary Motor Cortex. Instinctive reactions and biological responses to stimuli happen automatically. These may or may not be overcome by determined instruction by the frontal cortex, if it’s forwarned, and if it’s been taught how to do so. When we accidentally prick our finger on a pin, the reaction is automatic and involuntary – we jerk the whole hand away. This bypasses most of the brain’s functions in favour of a faster response.
Biological Implications Of Psionics
All this permits the biological implications of psionics to be considered. So far as the rules are concerned, the biology does not define the Abilities, the Abilities define the biology. There are as many different ways to explain psionics as there are flavours of fruit! But they all have certain obvious needs and general requirements.
The biology of Psionics clearly has to marry up with the other brain functions, paralleling the way the brain already does things. There needs to be a sensory input (this may be one of the existing senses); there will be memory areas in the rearward part of the brain for analysis and synthesis of these sensory impressions; there will be links forward to the planning and response analysis parts of the brain (these may be the existing links); connections from there to a part of the brain specifically devoted to psionic actions. Of course, at the very front of the process there will need to be an extra organ or brain structure of some sort to actually be the psionic sense receptor – the equivalent of eyes or ears – and at the very end, some muscle-equivalent organ or brain structure to actually generate the psionic effects.
Another important generalisation is the question of power – where does it come from and how is it regulated? Chemical Energy, the food/energy supply that runs the rest of the brain via the bloodstream, is sufficient, but would dangerously increase the bofy temperature to fever levels or beyond when the character was using his psionics, possibly to the point of requiring some further biological changes specifically to cool the bloodstream. That in turn exposes a potential vulnerability – exposing major blood vessels close to the brain to accidents is not exactly pro-survival! Furthermore, this would significantly increase the body’s consumption of food – sugars and fats – so the character would quickly assume the physique of a marathon runner or an aneorexia tragic. Or would try to maintain a suitable diet and quickly add on unwanted kilos.
The problem with chemical energy is that it is relatively inefficient as an energy source; the advantage is that it is relatively easy to transport through the body to where it’s needed.
The obvious alternatives are all more efficient in terms of energy concentration where it’s needed, but harder to get to where it’s needed without interfering with some other biological function. Some of these are not particularly reassuring, either; the thought of having a tiny biological nuclear reactor, with all the attendant problems of waste disposal and genetic damage from stray radiation, is not a particularly comfortable idea. And the tissues most likely to be damaged are the ones generating and controlling the nuclear reaction in the first place, a disturbing afterthought!
Probably the best answers are (1) Life Energy; (2) Dimensional Displacement; (3) electrical energy, the most obvious of them all; (4) parasitic energy; or (5) heightened efficiency. Life Energy is the answer generally used in the Zenith-3 and related campaigns, converted into useful format by the symbiotic Omega Virus that confers paranormal abilities on the majority of the recipients. It’s readily available, non-polluting, efficient, and everywhere (so it needs no transport arrangements). So it satisfies all the requirements – but the mere fact that it is the obvious answer should not stop us examining the alternatives.
Dimensional Displacement is a simple enough idea – move the hazards somewhere else, and just transport the end results – the energy – to where it’s needed. But it introduces all sorts of other complications and for that reason alone is not all that enticing. Contemplate the possibility of an enemy manouving a black hole to somewhere near the extra-dimensional link into the psionic’s head…..
The third option, electrical energy, seems fairly obvious. The brain is set up to operate electrically in any case; all you need is to lift the voltage a little and hey presto. Except that the brain is not all that well set up to operate electrically. More than half the brain structure operates chemically, and unwanted electrical discharges in the wrong place produce an effect called epilepsy. If they interfere with the involuntary body functions, like the heartbeat, they can be lethal. Nevertheless, there are far more fantastic things accepted within the assumptions and rules, so this answer is not as out-and-out ridiculous as some of the others.
The fourth alternative answer, parasitic energy, is not one of the more obvious ones, but it’s one of the best. If you’re using Telekinesis to lift something instead of using your arms, divert energy from your arm muscles to power the psionic power. If you’re using telepathy, divert energy from your ears, mouth, and throat. If you’re conecentrating on Cosmic Awareness, you aren’t concentrating on something else – so divert a little of the food supply from the parts of the brain not being used and use them to feed the extra energy to the psionics. This is a popular explanation in some campaigns, especially for low-powered characters.
The fifth answer, heightened efficiency, is another one that often sneaks under the radar. It takes the fact that the human organism is fundamentally inefficient in a lot of ways, wasting a lot of energy on heat. It was once thought that the prupose of the brain was to cool the blood! It has been shown, more recently, that this is not entirely accidental; many of the chemical reactions that drive the body are only possible at a narrow temperature range. This is why we run a fever when we get sick – it reduces the efficiency of many viruses and diverts energy from non-essentials (when we’re sick) to the immune system. But it would not take a great increase in efficiency to do what’s necessary.
Ultimately, the choice between these six possibilities, or even something not suggested here, is up to the player, and largely irrellevant in practical terms. As a launching pad for roleplaying, however, it can be an extremely useful part of the character concept.
Of course, none of these really address the question of just how psionics actually work….
It’s All In The Grey Matter
It’s readily aparrant that existing brain structures can handle a lot of the tasks involved in psionics, but that doing so is the equivalent of processing the information from an extra set of eyes, which is to say that it would require a fair amount of concentration to perform anything. It’s far more reasonable to suggest an extra half-millimeter or so of additional gray matter over the top of the existing brain structures. This additional brain would be visually indistinguishable from normal Cerebral structures, and would do nothing but integrate psionic senses and abilities with existing brain functions. This explanation doesn’t particularly suit any of the psionic powers, but it doesn’t rule any of them out, either.
Another possibility is that the psionic character is sufficiently sensitive to the patterns of electromagnetic radiation that they can have them resonate in their own minds, replicating them sufficiently to permit analysis; or can impose an electromagnetic force of appropriate shape on another person to alter the target’s thinking in the desired ways. The latter becomes far more easily explained through negative feedback if the latter is possible. This is especially useful for explaining telepathy, mind scan, mental illusions, and mind control.
A more exotic explanation is that the mental “space” that a personality occupies is actually a plane of existance unique to the individual. This gives the imagination an objective reality which can be percieved only by the individual. Normally undetectable, the shadow of this unique plane of existance on the world around us is the Kirlean Aura. For most of us, the shape is a bubble, and we have no real control over it. Some people organise and regulate their head-spaces better than others, but that doesn’t really affect the overall shape much. But psionic characters are not only fully aware of the shape of their headspace, using the equivalent of a bat’s sonar, but can change the shape, move it around, and use it to examine the shapes of other headspaces and other dimensions. They can also force their headspace to wrap around someone else’s headspace and change it’s shape, distorting and altering the thoughts within. This not only explains just about all the psionic Abilities, it also permits psychic combat to take place between psuedo-physical creations of the imaginations of the participants. If we presume that the flexibility of the psionic headspace also makes the boundaries more fragile, ie more susceptable to psionic manipulation by others, the OMCV/DMCV rules [which make Psionic charaters more vulnerable to other psionic characters than non-psionic characters are] are also explained!
Senses In Six Dimensions?
These are just three of the many dozens (if not hundreds) if possible explanations for how things work in psionics. They are relatively universal solutions, but there is no reason why you need a grand unified theory of ‘how my character is psionic”, you can have a different explanation for each ability, or even none at all if the character doesn’t have the faintest idea! Ultimately, the biology of psionics is something that can be both useful and interesting to think about, but isn’t actually necessary.
Retreating into abstraction
I’ve only just noticed that in a way, this series has been growing progressively more abstract. We started with a game metaphysics, which essentially described the underpinnings of the game mechanics, and hence is fairly practical; this second part has been almost fictional, more game background than anything else; and now we come to the third part, which will be all about metaphor and analogy and perhaps even a bit of allegory. I invite you to join me as I discuss Telepathic Spam And Other Psionic Concepts…