The Science Behind XCOM: Psionics

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Telepathy or mind control is frequently ranked as the most desirable super powers, and why not? Finally knowing what people really think about you? Bend your enemies to your will? What’s not to want? In the world of XCOM: Chimera Squad, this is everyday life for Verge, his psionic abilities giving him the edge when it comes to taking on the gangs of City 31.

Verge is a Sectoid, a species with powerful psionic abilities. He uses his mental abilities to disorient his enemies, causing them to attack their own allies, and seems to be able to read minds. In reality, despite decades of study and even a standing million dollar prize for confirmed paranormal abilities, there has never been a claim of psychic ability that has stood up to rigorous scientific study. 


So if the paranormal can’t do psychics, can science? Are there mechanisms in the natural world that, given the right application of science and technology, produce a similar effect to the psionics in Chimera Squad? For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on two aspects of XCOM’s Alien psionic agent: information gathering, and mental disruption, at range. 

A staple of psychic ability is some method of knowing what another is thinking without them speaking, or knowing that someone is “listening in”, commonly referred to as “reading minds”.

A 2018 paper by David A Moses, in the Journal of Neural Engineering, uses AI machine learning to recognise and predict a sentence that the subject was thinking of. Using a series of electrodes implanted on the cortical surface to gather neurological data from the Superior Temporal Gyrus, (a part of the brain used in speech), Moses’ team was able to predict the sentence that the subject was thinking about with up to 98% accuracy. Now, the subjects did have a very limited group of specifically chosen sentences to choose from, and the program Moses’ team was using needed to be calibrated for each subject. 

Having said that, Moses’ program could predict which phrase the subjects were thinking of with high degrees of accuracy. The lowest success rate was 90%. If the Mindreading Guy’s  lowest grade is 90% maybe you should be paying attention to whatever they say if you’re trying to read someone’s mind. 

It does not perfectly replace the psionics of XCOM, however. Even a conveniently advanced version that could reliably predict any kind of speech would require highly sensitive electrodes as close as possible to the subject’s brain. Hardly the “across the map” range that Verge displays. So half marks, I’d say. 

What about the other side of psionics? Verge can apply powerful mental disruption effects to enemy combatants. He can put them into a stupor or even make them think they’re “surrounded by enemies” and shoot one of their own allies. While it’s generally well accepted that, if you blast a brain with electricity, it wonks out for a bit (citation needed), more complicated is making someone shoot their ally by fiddling with their brain.  

Now, historically, there is a plethora of data on how electricity affects brains, usually on brains with certain conditions (schizophrenia, epilepsy, etc). But because past definitions of mental “conditions” include a bunch of things that we know now are just kinda normal  (homosexuality, left-handedness, having a libido,) over the years there has been a lot of data collected on “abnormal” brains that were really… just… brains. Normal brains. And a list detailing how electricity makes brains go wiggly woggly, (the technical term,) is exactly what I’m looking for. A study published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience combed through over nine-thousand different papers, looking for information on how electricity affects the brain.

The researchers compiled the studies collected into a comprehensive list of what types of effects were found when specific locations of the brain were “stimulated” (zapped). A wide variety of physical, cognitive, and emotional effects are listed. Looking at them, a combination of emotional effects like anger, anxiety, fear, a sense of unreality or disorientation. In a combat situation, that might be enough to provoke an attack at whomever the subject sees. Realistically, there might be a margin of error in actually making an enemy participate in a friendly fire exercise, but it would at the very least, disorient and confuse them. Which, I think is as close as we’re likely to get.  

Again, where we come up short from the game is range. The stimulation of the brains in these papers have electrodes placed directly on the skull of patients, with high degrees of precision. Two things that would be very difficult in a combat situation.  

So, is it possible to become a psychic? Well, that depends on how you define it. If you want to be able to predict what people are thinking without them telling you, or be able to mentally debilitate your enemies, with the right advances in technology, it certainly isn’t impossible. (Maybe just wait a decade or so for the tech to catch up)

You can learn more about the various aliens found in XCOM here. And if you enjoyed this article make sure to check out the rest of “science behind the game” series down below.

James Greene

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