The Science of Sense8

Sense8 is a new Netflix original TV show, based on the premise of eight people from around the world developing a telepathic hive mind. Though I have admittedly had a history of criticizing the Wachowskis on this site in the past, I’m not here to talk about the quality of this objectively pretty good show. No I’m here to talk about something substantially nerdier than that. I’m here to analyze the made up physics that make the plot of this show work. I’m here to talk about its world-building.

A propensity for creating and analyzing complex fictional worlds is why I started writing, why I’m so fascinated by speculative fiction. I can rationalize just about anything with pseudoscience and a mild misunderstanding of quantum mechanics So you’ll forgive me if i find it abundantly interesting when a writer puts a good deal of thought into the subject, or at least look like they have. If you haven’t seen the show yet, I’d like to assure you that it’s not going to make you sit through all this exposition, in fact the show is a true testament to “Show, don’t tell.” All it does is display the circumstances of the world. As a scientifically minded geek, it’s my duty to fill in the blanks. Because that’s what science is, at its heart: Taking a set of phenomenon, and figuring out an internally consistent explanation for it. Mostly this is done with reality, but that place is boring, so I prefer science fiction.

(NOTE: The following is (largely) Spoiler-Free)

The show provides an interesting take on the concept of telepathy. The telepaths, or “sensates” in the show have some sort of mutation that, once activated by another sensate “birthing” them, allows them to communicate and share knowledge, experience, and skills with other members of their “cluster” (a group of linked individuals) from across the globe. The exact mechanics of this transfer is not explained (it can’t be any sort of radio signal, they’re talking from opposite sides of the globe. So maybe they emit some kind of…exotic particle? Do these guys have nuclear reactions going on in their heads?), the only exact notes given are that their frontal lobes begin to merge. But I’m not so much concerned with why it works as the mechanics of how it works.

Noted at one point in the show is that the reason a particular cluster is linked has to do with the fact that all members of a cluster share a birthday. My first thought when I heard that was “What a load of mystic crockery bullshit.” But then I started thinking about it. Being born is a traumatic experience. There you are, warm and cozy, your mother’s heartbeat ticking away comfortably when suddenly everything you know stars spasming, you get shoved out a hole just a little too small for you, and then everything is bright and loud and cold and the only thing you can figure out how to do about it is use your newly discovered vocal chords and urinary tract. There’s a reason they call it the fetal position. But what if that little baby could reach out with its mind. Could telepathically scream at the globe, “What the hell is going on?!” And what if there were other little babies there to think the exact same thing out at the world. That little bit of sympathy, that echo to each of them of what they’re feeling themselves, could just form, in the malleable framework of a telepathic infants’s brain, the start of a connection. Lines etched in the dirt. But the human brain isn’t designed to up and start working in conjunction with several others. So the connections remain tenuous, vestigial. Something has to open them up.

The first episode opens with a woman sitting in an abandoned church, apparently hallucinating two different men, one threatening, one helpful, loving. The helpful one (Naveen Andrews) informs her she’s “Giving birth” and we see flashes of the eight main characters, all of them hallucinating her image. This is what activates their cluster. How does this function? This woman, along with the two men, are sensates themselves. Here the woman, the “mother” of the new cluster, consciously reaches out with her mind. The nearest sensate is found: Will, a Chicago cop. His mind is flooded with her telepathic influence, and the tenuous lines formed at his birth are opened, like a river carving a canyon, until consciousnesses can flow between them. This indicates that their telepathic powers could potentially access anyone with the same abilities, but limits are imposed by the structure and development of the human brain.

Further proof of this is the way sensates can form links outside of their cluster. It is explicitly mentioned that two sensates who are not in the same cluster can form a link, not a full like like with others of their cluster, but one that allows “visiting” (projecting one’s image into another’s perception to communicate from a distance) but not “sharing” (changing skills by essentially taking over each other’s bodies), if, and only if, they make eye contact. Again, “mystic crockery bullshit,” this time at least used to make the bad guy more threatening and advance the plot. But consider the idea that for sensates to communicate it’s just a matter of forming a link. If you look someone in the eye, their image is projected on your consciousness, and at the same time your image is projected on theirs. If you both happen to be psychic, you might recognize your image in their mind, and vice versa. And then you recognize that they also recognize themself in your mind. And then you both recognize that you both recognize that both of you are recognizing themself in the other’s mind. And feedback loop goes on and on like that until the reader and I have a headache and those two psychics have, in a process similar to the one that bound them to their cluster at birth, formed a faint connection.

And, that’s about all I got. There are still a lot of unanswered questions still, and I doubt we’ll ever get any concrete answers from the show, because it really doesn’t strike me as the “concrete answers” kinda show. But this is more or less all there is to know about sensatism so far, or at least what I could figure out. Well, maybe not everything. Never guy gives a whole speech in one episode about how mental connection is the natural order for animals and humans being the cruelest animals ’cause of their lack of it and blah blah blah but I’ve chosen to ignore all that because that actually is all mystic crockery bullshit.

If you have any notes to add to my analysis, please leave a comment. Or leave a comment for…really any other reason. About anything. It’s a comments section on a 10th rate website not a national literary journal.

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