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A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Read
In the dark I like to read his mind
but I'm frightened of the things I might find
Til Tuesday, "Voices Carry"

Alice's life is going swell until she gains the ability to read minds. She becomes very distraught when she discovers that the vast majority of the people around her have rather disturbing thoughts, thoughts better left unread. Random people think disgusting things all day long. Her friends are only using her. Her lover has been cheating since day one. Every random guy she meets wonders what she looks like naked. Most likely, all of the above and more.

Much like the time she went on TV Tropes, Alice's gift has ruined her life. She might opt on never using her powers in hopes of not alienating herself any further. If she's really unlucky, she won't be able to turn her power off. In this case, Alice will probably end up becoming a jaded misanthrope, a doleful hermit, or maybe just become really depressed. It's certainly understandable that Alice may wish to remove or disable her powers somehow.

This trope is a prime example of Humans Are Flawed. In more extreme examples, this trope might be evidence of a Crapsack World, and you can expect people to act like assholes as well as think like them. A villain may start out with this trope, and then go on to contemplate The Evils of Free Will.

Dirty Mind-Reading is a Sub-Trope.

See Also: Unhappy Medium, Black Bug Room, and some types of Insanity Immunity. May intersect with These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know if the read thought is really terrible.

Can be related to Power Incontinence.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Naoya's powers in Night Head Genesis are practically made of this, and it doesn't help that 90% of people in the anime are either evil or traumatized beyond repair. Particularly horrific visions cause him to hallucinate for hours, even days, on end. When he experiences his visions, they are also capable of rebounding off to the people surrounding him, leaving more room for judgement and ridicule. Even touching objects can trigger unfortunate visions. His older brother spends a lot of time looking after him.
  • Yoshiki, a high school student in Boogiepop Phantom, gains an incontinent ability to hear peoples' thoughts in episode nine, "You'll Never Be Young Twice". He promptly discovers that all of his friends dislike him, only sticking around to leech his money. He then gives his mind away to a bad guy out of desperation.
  • Mao's Geass in Code Geass makes him an example of this trope. Lelouch calls out C.C. on this, seeing as she gave him the ability in the first place and let him roam around going nuts from hearing the base thoughts of everyone around him.
  • One chapter of Keroro Gunsou has Dororo interrupt his team-mates' scheming to protest a particularly underhanded plot, only to be met with stunned silence. He promptly whips out a mind-reading ninja art and uses it on the other members to see what they thought about him. The answer sent him right into his Corner of Woe.
  • In Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex reading minds is usually harmless, but reading the mind of a suicidally depressed rape and abuse victim held in captivity for 16 years since she was 10 (her daughter is at least 10 years old) is not recommended.
  • Getting stuck inside other people's fantasies in Paprika is dangerous enough, but it's even worse when the wall between reality and fantasy begins to erode and one of the users of the MacGuffin dies, creating a psychic black hole.
  • This is the entire plot of the first episode of Kino's Journey, where one country developed a technology to allow its citizens to read one another's minds. This becomes so unbearable that they all move out to the countryside and stay out of each other's "mental ranges."
  • In YuYu Hakusho, the mind-reader Murota seems to have no problem with his telepathic powers... until he reads the mind of Sensui and his other six personalities, after which he has a severe nervous breakdown before being taken out by one of Sensui's henchmen.
  • Shaman King: This is part of the reason main antagonist Hao went batshit insane and became a Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds. An accident left him with a very dangerous ability, Reishi ("Reading the Heart"), that he could not control. The negative emotions and thoughts of others constantly overwhelming him and, since he was unable to turn his Reishi off, the deluge of negativity eventually drove him to become the Shaman King so that he create a Shaman only kingdom on earth.
    • Anna also had a powerful Reishi ability as a child. By the time she first met Yoh in person, it was causing her to accidentally manifest demons when she was around other people. She lost her Reishi powers not long after that meeting, sealing it herself after Matamune sacrificed himself to help Yoh defeat the Oo-Oni created by Anna's Reishi.
  • A Weiß Kreuz doujin rewrote Schuldig and Omi’s confrontation to have Omi fighting Schuldig ‘s mind reading abilities by first imagining Schuldig in a Tutu… followed closely by a Schuldig/Reiji Takatori romantic scene. Schuldig ended up begging for mercy while Omi threatened to imagine even more vivid scenarios.
  • Shiho from Zettai Karen Children has the ability since birth. At the beginning of the series she is somewhere around 12 and pretty much despairs of humanity.
    • Made even worse by some of the ways others use her powers. Her own father the police chief has her read evidence in murder investigations, meaning she has been exposed to visions of horrible killings and corpses. She is a tad morbid and disturbing as a result.
  • The minor character of the boyfriend of Shin's babysitter on Shin Chan is a telepath (although she doesn't this); it's mainly used for throw away jokes where he laments being able to read his neurotic girlfriend's mind while she she thanks god he can't hear all the crazy things she thinks and worries about.
  • Whenever Nodoka in Mahou Sensei Negima! uses her artifact in any situation that's not very serious, she tends to learn things she really wishes she hadn't. Not terrible things, but very awkward. First she tries it on herself and realizes she's a Covert Pervert. Later she tries testing out some new equipment she got and learns that she accidentally set up a love triangle among some new friends. And after that when she tries reading Negi's mind when he's gone berserk the diary pages literally go black with rage and hatred. Since she presumably still had on that equipment, imagine what horrible things she must have heard.
  • In School Rumble, Yakumo's ability to see the thoughts of people who are infatuated/in love with her (As text floating in the air) generally only makes her miserable. She gets asked out/confessed to/propositioned by boys all the time, but is put off by what they REALLY want. (Except for Hanai, who actually thinks what he says, but he puts her off in other ways.) Even worse, she can't read the guy she's actually interested in, because he's one of the few guys she knows that is NOT infatuated with her.
    • The exceptions are her sister, whom she can read the mind of and cares very deeply for, and a cat she adopted, who's thoughts unintelligible because they're still in cat.
  • Yukuhashi Mizou of Medaka Box has this problem. It nearly drove him mad until he met Miyakonojou Oudo. His abnormality is the opposite of Mizou's and can block his, along with do other truly insane things.
  • Haruka Kotoura, title character of Kotoura-san, is a victim of this trope enough to make this trope to be played in several ways in a single episode.
    • In the beginning she was socialy shunned because of this trope— it didn't affect her sanity, but she was Innocently Insensitive enough to blurt out whatever she read. As a result she was treated as a freak or even a complusive liar, and she caused her own Parental Abandonment because she blurted her parents were cheating towards each other.
    • After she had became a Broken Bird in her teens, she invoked this trope to drive people away, as thought she'd bring harm to anyone she cares about.
    • The Downer Beginning was ended by the subversion of this trope; as she saw Manabe holds nothing of contempt about her, unlike everyone else. This subversion persists as Manabe is so honest so the invocation above doesn't work at all.
    • Discussed later in episode 1, when Manabe admired of her powers...
    Haruka: You idiot. There's nothing cool about it, you idiot... You don't know anything! You don't know how it feels to look into other people's minds!
  • This is the theme of Tell Me A Lie, a one-shot by Gosho Aoyama, better known as the creator of Detective Conan.

    Comic Books 
  • X-Men
    • Jean Grey had this problem early on after her mutant ability surfaced. She still deals with this problem, although she's much better at coping with it. The problem early on is that she didn't know how to turn it off.
    • Rogue isn't a mind-reader, but she can absorb people's memories, which can be very discomforting. When this happened with individuals of the totally evil Dire Wraiths - the bad guys race from the series Rom - Space Knight - this caused Rogue to be physically sick on-panel on two separate occasions.
  • Happens to Martian Manhunter once or twice in various continuities. Like the time he met a thing called IT and nearly went into a coma. Or the time he read Superman's mind when he was controlled by Mageddon and nearly went into a coma. Or the time he read the mind a nihilistic teenager and had to leave the planet in order to perform a Martian psychic cleansing ritual.
    • In 52 Black Adam does this to the Manhunter all by himself.
    • What about the time he tried to rewire The Joker's mind to include sane thought patterns? Damn nigh gave himself a stroke with two minutes of effort.
  • Fables-Kay has the ability to see every evil deed someone has done by looking at them. He uses this on Gepetto. He probably shouldn't have.
  • Madison in Wandering Star. Cassie quotes Madison in describing what it's like to be psychic: "It's like being locked alone in a room. Next door they begin to kill someone. You can hear everything. The screams. The sobs. The pleading. And you can't do a thing. All you can do is listen."
  • Mindf██k from Empowered not only lives most of the time on a space station to avoid getting headaches from reading other people's minds, but admits being tired of reading the filthy minds of lunatics.
  • Stormwatch: Team Achilles member Avi Barak learns this when he first joins the team. His power, called "inductive telepathy", lets him see the true answers to whatever questions he asks someone. When he encounters Jukko, whose entire body is covered with scars, he asks on impulse what happened to him. He suffers a near-fatal seizure from the instant download of all of Jukko's traumatic memories, and in later issues, continues to have nightmares about them. Jukko himself could be said to qualify, as his power is hyper-empathy, which results in him feeling the pain of every being within a four mile radius.
  • Dilbert:
    • As seen in this strip, reading Dilbert's thoughts apparently either terrified or infuriated the two-headed telepath he was dating; maybe both.
    • In another strip, the Pointy Haired Boss is talking about how the company with whom they are merging is made up of mental giants who can read employees' minds and torture them mentally if they dislike what they find. Wally, not terribly frightened despite having just witnessed a demonstration of the latter ability, remarks that "if they try reading mine, they'll go blind." A later comic where Catbert does indeed go blind from reading a paper readout of Wally's mind seems to prove him right.
    • As the author Scott Adams noted in one of his annotated Dilbert compilations, he's glad women don't know what men are really thinking.
  • While Superman is not a mind reader, the Redemption storyline reveals that he faced similar squicks due to his enhanced hearing during church, as he could hear the mumblings and whispers of the problems of various people. Because of this, he stopped going to church with his adoptive parents.
  • In one of the Darth Maul Comics, he is sent on a mission to destroy all the leaders of the galaxy-spanning crime organization Black Sun. After all of the remaining leaders and the head are at the safest stronghold, he begins butchering their elite mooks with his lightsaber, his bare hands, a blaster, and the Force. The last one he fights before he kills most of the crime lords is a telepathic alien who tries to read his mind, but Darth Maul is so infused with the dark side of the Force the telepath either dies or goes into a permanent state of shock, complete with black blood dripping from his nose.

     Fan Works 

    Film 
  • In What Women Want, Mel Gibson's chauvinistic character starts this way, once he's given the power to read women's minds from a freak accident. Although later on in the film it dawns on him that he can use this power to manipulate women's emotions even more than he did before without the ability, at first he's definitely a little anxious and eventually winds up at his former marriage counselor's work building.
    Marriage counselor: This is phenomenal! You can hear inside my head. Why on earth would you want to get rid of such a brilliant gift?
    Nick: Well... for starters... most of the women I know think I'm an asshole...
    Counselor: *Thinks* That's what I thought when I first met ya.
    Nick: Doc, would you please give me a break here?!
    • There's also a scene where he reads a pair of way-too-happy women and hears nothing.
    • Played straight elsewhere as he discovers that, after reading the mind of one of his dates, she was perfectly willing to commit suicide if he rejected her. He wound up lying and claiming he was gay because he could tell from her thoughts this was what she preferred to believe.
    • He also discovers from the same woman, that his lovemaking abilities are nowhere near as good as he'd like to believe. She spends most of the time that they're having sex either thinking "I don't like that, why is he doing it?", or wondering about what's on television or what she's going to have for dinner. After a brief freakout in the bathroom, however, he does successfully turn the evening around and reads her mind to find what she really *does* like in bed, and proceeds to send her into a state of blissful delirium.
  • A major element of Matt Damon's character in Hereafter. He can read people's minds and/or communicate with their dead relatives by touching their hands, and this is not a good thing at all. Imagine accidentally discovering the girl who you've been flirting with was sexually abused as a child by her father. Blessed with Suck, indeed.
  • While no actual mind reading occurs on screen, it's mentioned in Men In Black that human thought is so primitive, it's considered an infectious disease.
    • Which is apparently something to be proud of.
      • The implication is that, in the Mi B-verse, humanity is so utterly unremarkable in the grand scheme of things, that it can be considered something to be proud of that at least something about us is considered worth remembering to the rest of the universe.
  • A variation and arguable inversion in Star Trek when Kirk mind melds with the Spock from the original timeline. Spock blames himself for the destruction of Vulcan, and thus is feeling huge amounts of grief, guilt, and overall pain. Since Vulcan emotions are stronger than humans and emotional transference is an effect of the mind meld, Kirk is overwhelmed and left stumbling around in a daze for a few seconds.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past:
    • Xavier in the past is so broken that he does not want to hear voices anymore. In order to visit his future self he has to go through Wolverine's mind, which is full of traumatic memories. It's a pretty shocking experience for him.
    • He also uses the serum to block out the voices in his head.

    Literature 
  • In The Dresden Files, it is not recommended to read the mind of a supernatural unless you specifically want to fry your own brain.
    • It is also not recommended to read a mortal's mind without permission, unless you want to lose your head. Not because of the mind-reading, but rather the angry, sword-wielding Wardens who know too well this kind of thing will almost inevitably turn you into an out-of-control psychopath.
    • If you are a wizard, you have to be careful about making extended eye contact with anyone who has a soul. Otherwise, a Soul Gaze will be triggered, which exposes you to a visual representation of that person's soul and vice versa. Gazing into a sufficiently nasty Soul is an extremely traumatic experience that can never be forgotten since the memory of a Soul Gaze will never fade.
    • Molly gets the worst of it. As her magical power grows, so does her sensitivity to the thoughts and emotions of beings around her- humans, various evil supernaturals, and Eldritch Abominations. It gets so bad that, by Cold Days, she can barely stand to be in a crowded room.
  • A short story in the magazine Teen Ink had this as the premise.
  • In Graceling, mind readers tend to be terribly lonely and unhappy people as a result of this.
  • The Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries: Sookie never had control of her powers until she found Bill and the other supernaturals. She is pretty much the personification of this trope.
  • Spider Robinson's Callahans Crosstime Saloon story "Two Heads Are Better Than One". A telepath suffers from Power Incontinence: he regularly makes full contact with any mind within a certain radius, which causes him great distress. One time it's so bad he tries to bash his own head open to make it stop.
    • In two other Robinson novels, Very Bad Deaths and Very Hard Choices, the telepath Zandor "Smelly" Zudenigo is so painfully sensitive that in college he avoided bathing, so his body odor would keep other people out of his physical range for mind-reading. Later in life his range has expanded, and he has to live as a hermit on a remote island.
  • Andre Norton's The Zero Stone. In order to convince a Patrol officer that he's innocent of the crimes he's accused of, Murdoc Jern is mentally joined to the officer by his companion Eet. It's extremely uncomfortable for both men.
  • In The King's Justice, Kelson questions Gorony and Loris telepathically after they're captured. Gorony was an enthusiastic inquisitor, and Kelson likens reading Gorony's mind to "taking a swim in the castle middens in the summertime." When it's Loris' turn, Kelson finds "[r]eading Loris was even more loathsome than reading Gorony had been"; Loris gave explicit instructions to Istelyn's executioners and revelled in their grisly work, and he engaged in inquisitions and burnings in many outlying areas of the kingdom prompted by his "long-standing and unreasoning hatred of the Deryni."
  • Subversion: In Alfred Bester's novel The Demolished Man, Police Prefect Lincoln Powell is an Esper, one of a small minority who can read minds. His boss the Commissioner is prejudiced against Espers. So, in order to try to soften the prejudice, Powell tells the Commissioner how lucky he is that he can't read minds, because of this trope. Of course, Powell is lying, since he doesn't read minds except on invitation (or unless he suspects criminal acts), and Powell actually finds much to love in every mind.
  • Another Alfred Bester Inversion - In "The Stars My Destination" (aka "Tiger, Tiger"), there's a reverse telepath. Instead of reading minds, she constantly projects her thoughts to everyone around her. Whether she wants to or not.
  • The short horror story "The Ring" by Margaret Bingley, in which a girl acquires a cursed ring that enables her to read the minds of everyone around her and is soon driven insane when she discovers how much her family and "friends" really despise her. In the ending, the ring returns to The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday where the girl bought it, and is purchased by a woman whose husband is about to kill her to claim on the insurance. When the original victim reads the minds of her three-year-old half-brothers, she hears that they love her. So, perhaps the ring wasn't that evil and everyone really did hate her. What a cheery little tale!
  • Eragon, protagonist of the Inheritance Cycle, brings this trope up in the second book, claiming to be "uncomfortable with the idea of prying into people's secrets ... secrets that they have every right to keep to themselves". He shortly thereafter learns to use this power for good.
    • Elva, however, was cursed with the ability to sense the pain of everyone around her. Her 'range' so to speak, is several dozen miles, and the effects of it nearly drive her insane. And she's been enduring this since birth.
  • In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the Belcerebons of Kakrafoon Kappa were found to be in contempt by the Galactic Tribunal for smugly living lives of peaceful contemplation. As a punishment the Tribunal inflicted a terrible social disease upon them: telepathy. For some time they could only mask their minds by chattering endlessly about trivia. Their salvation came when they hosted the plutonium rock band 'Disaster Area'; music so loud it wiped their telepathic abilities out for good.
  • In The Tommyknockers, by Stephen King, an entire town becomes mindlinked to each other as an alien ship causes them to mutate. It's implied that this effect is part of what makes the creatures evil—or at least callous and careless; they are forced to hear each other's petty gripes and trivia 24/7.
  • In The Last Herald-Mage trilogy, young Vanyel Ashekevron is pushed even further towards the edge (after his lover goes insane and suicides) when the same event gives him Mindspeech and he finds out that most of the Heralds despise him. And the Herald set to watch him is not only unsympathetic but homophobic to boot.
    • In the rest of the Heralds of Valdemar series characters with untrained Mindspeech or Empathy find themselves here by way of Power Incontinence. Unless one learns (or is taught) how to shield out thoughts/emotions, one can easily be driven to madness or hermitage by sheer weight of other people's thoughts everywhere, especially in a city.
  • In Larry Niven's "The Soft Weapon" and its rewrite for Star Trek, "The Slaver Weapon," the cat-like alien Kzinti have a telepath that they use to eavesdrop on their human (or half-Vulcan) prisoners. Spock instructs the crew to think of eating delicious raw salads, which disgusts the meat-eating Kzinti so much that the can't continue to read their minds.
  • This is one of the reasons that the Registered Talents in Anne McCaffrey's Tower and the Hive series tend to move into the large isolated and insulated estate established for them. Living in one of the crowded, high-rise residence blocks drives them to distraction.
  • Orson Scott Card's:
    • In the The Tales of Alvin Maker series, Peggy's ability to see into people's hearts doesn't bother her very much, but the fact that she knows all the deepest secrets of everyone she encounters makes other people very uncomfortable, and her being a Little Miss Snarker doesn't help much. She eventually gets lessons in social skills that include practicing not automatically reading everyone's mind; when it's all done, she's all grown up and extremely popular.
    • Card also discusses this in The Worthing Saga, though there it's a little bleaker, since other people's memories feel just as real as one's own. Jason Worthing is a virgin, but in his memory he's been involved in "acts he did not think his neighbors had enough imagination to invent." At the story's opening he's never killed, but he clearly remembers killing a man in a riot. All the worst aspects of humanity are a part of him.
  • In The Sirantha Jax Series, March the telepath knows the worst of everyone around him, and hardly bothers to hide his contempt for them. He knows when they lie either to others or to themselves. In fact, the main draw he feels towards Jax is that she doesn't lie and there's no disconnect between what she's thinking and what she's saying.
  • The main character's wife in Frameshift by Robert J. Sawyer can read minds due to a frameshift mutation. She developed a dislike of men because of the disgusting things they think about doing to her, and married the protagonist partially because he thinks in his first language (French), and she can't understand his thoughts.
  • The short story "Through Other Eyes" by R. A. Lafferty involves a scientist who's spent his entire life wondering whether everyone experiences things the same way he does—whether what he calls red really looks to others like what he calls blue, whether roses smell as sweet, and so on. He builds a machine to translate the thoughts in one mind to another, and uses it on a woman he considers himself to be in love with. Through it, he learns that she sees the world as a place of vileness and horror; that (as she herself later says) every time a bird flies by she thinks of what's gurgling in its stomach—and she glorifies in it. Later on, she absolutely smashes him mentally by convincing him he has the worse worldview—her world is twistedly beautiful, and his is utterly dead, lacking in any sort of romance or wonder. At the story's close, he's almost ready to sell the device to the public—but first, he's modifying it so it lies to the user, making the subject's thoughts seem less different than they really are, because true understanding is just too horrible.
  • The Redemption of Althalus: Leitha was born with the ability to read minds. Unfortunately, the bad guys know this from the beginning, and from the moment that she joins the group, the bad guys constantly throw at her horrible and disturbing thoughts to try and break her. This is made worse because the bad guys range from a chaotic evil cannibal to a lawful evil warlord wannabe, and just their ordinary thoughts would be bad enough.
    • Even an ordinary person's mind is deeply disturbing at times: Leitha herself states that most humans are much closer to animals than they would ever like to admit, and given that she's a rather beautiful woman, from men she tends to get horribly perverse thoughts, while from women she tends to get spiteful and jealous thoughts.
  • In Twilight, Edward Cullen's telepathy is strongly hinted at as one of the reasons he's so alone prior to Bella's coming to Forks. He's rich, pretty, smart, strong, and wanted by every woman who comes in contact with him (it seems), but he ends up falling in love with a rather dull, uninspiring, self-described plain girl whose distinguishing feature is the fact that he can't read her mind.
  • Jeremy Bremen from Dan Simmons' The Hollow Man suffers this as soon as his wife dies, who was the only other telepath he had met. Being around large crowds of people makes him suffer horrible migraines, considering his ability is the equivalent of watching thousands of television shows at once in 3D at full volume with no way to turn it off. The only people who he can be around with no negative effects to him are those who are mentally deficient or psychotic.
  • In Animorphs many species are capable of "thought-speak," a form of willing telepathy, but Leerans read minds automatically even if the subjects don't want them to. Though this is normal for them, the Animorphs found it disturbing when they morphed Leerans and suddenly could hear each other's neuroses. Luckily, they figured out how to shut it off.
  • This is pretty much what did in the Martians in The Martian Chronicles. While they were perfectly fine being telepathic by themselves, the sheer novelty of thoughts emanating from the first handfuls of human explorers were enough to drive them completely insane, resulting in the rapid downfall of their civilization and the destruction of the entire species.
  • A major danger for the Tines from A Fire Upon the Deep, who are all sort of mini-Hive Minds (usually about 3-8 Tines per each individual pack) that “think” by transmitting their thoughts as sound among packmates. Because of this, the notion of personal space means having enough distance (usually about 20' or more) where they can whisper politely among themselves and yell at normal conversational levels to chat with other packs, as being closer means the packs' thoughts will muddle together making coherent thought impossible without intense concentration. Such mental discipline is especially crucial during close combat, as weaker-minded packs will break down into animalistic “singletons” under such proximity to another pack.
  • In Timothy Zahn's Distant Friends series, telepaths coming closer than 20 miles apart experience insanity, identity confusion, and pain. If they continue approaching each other, the strain kills them. Two of these telepaths have fallen in love. One of the two commissions a gizmo that blocks the telepathy so that he can be with his beloved; unfortunately, the inventor turns out to be a villain, tricks him into a chase ending at the beloved's house, then holds the telepathic pair hostage by threatening to turn off the machine.
  • Jakub Wędrowycz uses this to protect himself from nosy telepaths and possessive demons - the squicky things he has among his memories will make anyone or anything back out in panic.
  • Kim Newman's Richard Jeperson, agent of the Diogenes Club, developed psychic powers at school, where he was horrified to discover that many teachers fantasized about killing the boys. He soon realized that the ones to really be wary of were the ones who didn't, since they had the same frustrations, but no safe release for them.
  • In Harry Potter the title character's late father, James, used to have a bitter teenage rivalry with Harry's least favorite teacher, Snape; naturally, Harry disregards every single thing Snape says about his father being a pompous Jerk Jock. At one point Harry uses a magical device called a Pensieve, which stores thoughts, to see a memory Snape put in. To Harry's horror, the memory shows James acting like a self-absorbed jackass and humiliating Snape for no reason. It ends with Harry's own mother, Lily, coming to Snape's defense and telling James that he's a miserable person who absolutely disgusts her. Harry is so shocked he begins to wonder how the two of them ever wound up Happily Married.
    • In the last book, he sees more of Snape's memories and discovers the necessary but rather startling information that he's actually one of Voldemort's Soul Jars and Dumbledore wants him to basically let Voldemort kill him.
  • Played with quite a bit in this. The telepath's abilities have caused her to become a misanthrope, but since she has always been able to read minds, she actually considers it a benefit, as it allows her to know people's true nature.
  • In Mephisto In Onyx, Rudy Pairis is a telepath who has yet to encounter a mind that doesn't make him want to vomit. Unfortunately, he frequently finds himself in situations where he is tempted to reach out and touch some mind. The story gets rolling when a friend he can't turn down asks him to read the mind of a convicted serial killer to prove him innocent. It doesn't go well from there.
  • Mahnahmi from the Humanx Commonwealth series was born a telepath, fully aware of the thoughts of everyone around her. As it happened, she came into the care of a certain fellow by the name of Conda Challis, who was probably in the running for the Most Depraved Person of the Commonwealth award. Among the least of the things she learned was that he intended to use her as a torture/sex slave when she grew up. This, understandably, permanently warped her psyche and drove her to utter nihilism.
  • The protagonist of Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside can read other people's minds, and he is unable to function in society because of it.
  • The young-adult book "the lies they tell" tells the story of a young girl who develops telepathic abilities after a blow to the head. She has some upsetting experiences, but eventually learns how to block out thoughts, and manages to discover a corrupt politician's dastardly plot.
  • A short story featured a black businessman who frequently harangued the people around him. When a scientist appears with a helmet that he claims can allow you to read minds he promptly tries it on and starts hearing just how much people hate him, either for his behavior or his race. Worse the helmet burns out leaving him permanently stuck hearing the thoughts of everyone around him driving him insane due to being unable to cope with reality being far harsher than the fantasy he'd lived that people liked him. Eventually he commits suicide in the Asylum they place him in (no surprise there, given what kind of thoughts he got bombarded with THERE).
  • The Chaos Walking Trilogy has this in the form of the Noise germ, which basically means that any thought (in the form of words, fragments of sentences, or even pictures) flows from the mind of the thinker, and is out there for anyone to hear/read/see. Todd, the main character, even comments that Noise can have 'texture' and 'colour', reflecting the emotional state of the thinker. This is where the series gets its title, and the constant flow of Noise is understandably difficult to cope with. Also, in an even darker twist, the fact that only men produce Noise led to much paranoia and hatred between the sexes in the early years of settlement on the new world, to the point that the men of Prentisstown slaughtered all of the women unlucky enough to stay.
  • Kevin J. Anderson's novel Blindfold has the entire justice system on the human colony of Atlas based on a telepathic caste of people called Truthsayers and the premise that they're always right and truthful. Truthsayers touch the accused and scan his or her mind in order to determine guilt or innocense. A Truthsayer's verdict is final and cannot be appealed (there is no higher authority). However, given the kind of minds they scan, Truthsayers have to undergo years of training (from early childhood) in order to detach themselves from crawling around minds of murderers (they don't deal with lesser crimes). The book's main story arc involves a young female Truthsayer who, after crawling around in the head of an insane mass murderer (who believes in the rightness of his brand of justice), is extremely disturbed. Her next scan is of a young dockworker who was caught next to the body of his supervisor (wrong place at the wrong time). However, the dockworker still felt intense guilt over failing to submit his paperwork on time, and this, coupled with her previous experiences, resulted in her declaring him guilty. She did finally realize she was wrong a few days later, but too late for the poor kid who has already been sent to an orbital facility from where no one returns.
  • Scott and Jamie from The Power of Five don't like to read minds for exactly this reason.
  • The Zack Files book Zap! I'm a Mind Reader is basically all about this (at least until he overhears what sounds like someone planning a murder)— he learns that his father hasn't gone to the dentist in years, some of the kids in his class haven't changed their underwear in a week, and a creepy lady in his apartment building has a crush on his dad.

    Live Action TV 
  • Toshiko Sato of Torchwood gains telepathy in the episode "Greeks Bearing Gifts". She races home hurt and angry after hearing the thoughts of her co-workers. On the other hand, it does help her stop a man from killing his wife and kid.
    • At the same time, Jack is an utter blank to her, resulting in a Nothing Is Scarier situation. However, during the episode's climax, it's revealed that he may have suspected something and deliberately blocked out his mind, only letting carefully-selected thoughts slip to let Tosh know what to do. Given his past as a Temporal Agent, this could be part of his training.
  • This happens to Buffy in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Earshot". The problem more arises from being overloaded with hearing people's thoughts, as opposed to being shocked at what people are truly thinking. Though she was surprised to learn that All Men Are Perverts.
    Buffy: You had sex with Giles?...On the hood of a police car?!...Twice?!
    Xander's internal monologue: Four times five is thirty. Five times six is thirty-two...Naked girls...Naked women...Naked Buffy!
    • Oz has some interesting thoughts on this matter.
    Oz's internal monologue: I am my thoughts. If they exist in her, Buffy contains everything that is me, and she becomes me. I cease to exist.
    Oz: Huh.
    • We also learn that Cordelia pretty much always says exactly what she's thinking. Which makes a lot of sense; this is the same girl who said "Tact is just not saying true stuff."
    Cordelia's internal monologue: Whatever. I'm bored.
    Cordelia: Whatever. I'm bored.
  • True Blood: Sookie hears a great deal she doesn't want to, and people treat her as if she is stupid because her power makes her behave oddly. She was also a twenty five year old virgin since hearing what guys really thought was a big turn off, and she only lost her virginity when she did because vampiric minds can't be read.
    • Actually, the show's gone out of its way twice now to remind us that telepaths hate hanging out with normal humans- both Sookie and the bellhop-telepath in Dallas have actually mentioned their preference for the vampire community because of their power out loud, on-camera.
  • Firefly: River is distraught by the thoughts of shipmates in the last episode, experiencing several upsetting emotions. It doesn't help that she's only getting fragments, so that she hears Simon thinking about the loss of his old life and career, making her feel guilty even though he neither holds her responsible nor regrets rescuing her—he just misses it sometimes.
    • Subverted in one instance: When River reads Jayne's mind, she sees what appears to be regret for trying to sell her out to the Feds. It's surprisingly sweet considering that he's spent the whole series trying to get rid of the Tams. And again in the same scene, when she gets a brief peek at the Shepard's thoughts.
    • In Serenity the Operative believes this to be the reason for River's insanity, or at least a major part of it -She was driven crazy by the secrets she inadvertently picked up from the Alliance Parliament. It's also the reason the mere presence of Reavers is enough to send her into a Heroic BSOD until the film's climax.
  • The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Tin Man" has Tam Elbrun, a Betazoid who has had his ability from birth, resulting in Power Incontinence (most Betazoids develop telepathy during puberty, and are able to control it). He was quite relieved when he met Data, who had no (organic) mind to read.
  • Babylon 5: Pretty much every teep ever.
    • Reading the minds of dying people is implied to be even worse than other cases, because the mind reader can be "dragged" down together with the dying person. Bester, the resident creepy Psi Cop, specialized in deathbed scans... one too many of these are implied to have made him the cheerful fellow that he is.
    • Played for laughs when Talia gets into an elevator with Garibaldi, then shortly afterwards hits him, implied to be for a dirty thought that crossed his mind (intentionally or accidentally is unknown).
    Garibaldi: (bending over in pain) I think I'm in love.
    • There is a severe shortage of telepaths willing to work in the area of mundane (i.e., non-Psi Cop) criminal justice. Crawling around in the brains of murderers and rapists is nobody's idea of a good time.
    • Telepaths have to go out of their way to generate internal Psychic Static to keep themselves from being overwhelmed by the barrage of thoughts being projected by the mundanes all around them. Methods described range from repeating nursery rhymes or Ear Worm songs to visualizing a protective wall built around them to keep the white noise out. Sometimes, this isn't enough, as certain peoples' thoughts are louder than others. Garibaldi is evidently a particularly difficult man to ignore in this fashion. One annoyed telepath points out the irony of a paranoid man who distrusts telepaths insisting on broadcasting his every thought at full blast.
  • The '90s The Outer Limits episode "What Will the Neighbors Think?"
  • This happened to Matt Parkman when his ability first manifested.
  • Kelly from Misfits develops the power of telepathy, which only heightens and exacerbates her personal insecurity as she is frequently judged harshly by the people she encounters - while she is a genuinely kind and sensitive person she's something of a rough diamond who uses her abrasiveness and slightly gaudy appearance to mask her low self-esteem. Her power causes her to break up with her fiancee, and generally hear a lot of things she'd rather not about the way people see her. Also, she tends to hit or shout at people whose thoughts particularly offend her (making her look entirely mad, of course) and she frequently embarrasses others when she blurts out their secrets without thinking, so really her power sucks for just about everyone involved.
  • Parodied in Chappelle's Show as What Men Want.
  • In one episode of Gilligan's Island, a special type of seed gives the castaways mind-reading powers which lead to arguments and division. Luckily, the effects are temporary, and Gilligan, in one of the smartest moves he would ever make, burns the bush that produces the seeds so it will never happen again.
  • In the Supernatural episode "You Can't Handle the Truth", the Monster of the Week magically forces everyone in earshot of its victim to practice unedited honesty in order to provoke this effect. The victims are Driven to Suicide.
  • The Twilight Zone episode "A Penny For Your Thoughts" is about a bank clerk who develops telepathy. While he doesn't hear anything too awful, he's thankful to be rid of it by the end.
    • Moreover, the point is made that thoughts aren't always an accurate gauge of people's real intentions. For instance, one man he overheard thinking of getting revenge on the bank that employed him by robbing it wasn't really angry and determined enough to carry out his plan, having had that thought every day at closing for the past several months, but never following through.
  • In Fringe, one of the child subjects in the cortexiphan trials conducted by William Bell and Walter Bishop became a telepath. When Walter found out, he had him kicked out of the trials for fear of the boy finding out the truth about the program. It turns out that he is unable to shut off this ability or even put up some sort of a mental screen. He reads the mind of anyone within 50 feet. When they find him next, he has grown up and lives alone far away from anyone. They only people he can't read are his fellow cortexiphan subjects. Of course, this is far from the only life Walter has ruined with his experiments.
  • Emma in Mutant X is an empath but later "evolves" to a more powerful version. One of her new abilities is full-blown telepathy, although she tends to block out people's thoughts unless necessary. In one episode, she is forced to use all her abilities to keep their Cool Plane hidden from an army looking for them. She warns Jesse that she will be unable to block out other people's thoughts, as all her concentration is required for the "psychic cloak" and asks him to think happy thoughts. Then he accidentally glances at her low-cut cleavage, and she frowns at the unavoidable thought in his head.
  • In No Ordinary Family, Daphne's power is mind reading. She is initially overwhelmed, but learns to control it. Similar to the Buffy example above, it had more to do with the volume of thoughts than what she was hearing. She ends up helping her father fight crime, against her mother's wishes, become elected to student council and makes a guy like her. Eventually, her powers progress and she is able to control thoughts.
  • The Collector: The Devil doesn't exactly take well to hearing the pain and evil thoughts of everyone in the universe.
  • In My Hero, George gains mind-reading powers, and is soon shocked at the twisted thoughts within the minds of the human race.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "Hide", the Doctor explains that empaths tend to be both extremely compassionate and extremely lonely.
  • While it may not be a traditional kind of mind-reading, Will Graham's empathizing puts him in serial killer's mindsets to catch them for the FBI. His mind and sanity deplete as a result of killing people in his head in the place of the killer, to know how they think. No one ever said getting into murderers' heads was good for you...
  • An episode of SeaQuest DSV involves three psychics being brought in to aid the UEO in negotiating with other maritime nations after the discovery of the Library of Alexandria on the sea floor. One of them is determined to prove that using psychics in this manner is a bad idea by deliberately giving false information to Captain Bridger (e.g. that the Libyan ambassador is bluffing when he isn't). His daughter (one of the other two psychics) admits to Bridger that she was once asked to go into the mind of a criminal, and she's still suffering the aftereffects. She also discovers that Bridger himself has latent Psychic Powers and even tries to train him a bit in using them. This is the last we hear of his powers, though.
    • It's also strange that foreign dignitaries would agree to the presence of psychics, unless they don't believe in their powers.

    Music 
  • Hawkwind's song "Psi Power" is all about this trope.
  • As is Tom Smith's filk "I Wish I Couldn't Read Her Mind," naturally enough.
    • And the Cristine Lavin song that inspired it, "Good Thing He Can't Read My Mind."

    Mulitple Media 
  • Kongu finds this out after activating his Mask of telepathy in BIONICLE. It's also implied that Orde's psionic powers have made him very impatient with other people, as he is able to know exactly what a person is going to say before they say it, and he often appears frustrated when he then has to endure the actual conversation that he's already heard.
  • Played for Laughs when The Nostalgia Chick gained the power to read guy minds. She kidnapped Todd in the Shadows as usual and actually fell over in frustration when she found out Obscurus Lupa was the only thing that existed in his brain. Not like that stopped her obsession, however.

    Tabletop Games 
  • GURPS: Psionic Powers has rules for letting a psi trap an attacker inside her mind. More mundanely people with Anti-Psi can make their mind such a void that when people try to read it that the abyss gazes back into them.
  • In the Dungeons & Dragons setting Ravenloft, you do NOT want to make telepathic contact with fiends or aberrations. Do so can drive your character insane from contact with a mind so alien. Making telepathic contact with a Darklord can cause all sorts of mental stress, though not outright madness.
    • The Detect Thoughts spell can backfire nastily on the caster if it's used on an extremely intelligent person or creature. A proactive person who has survived powerful fear magic can turn their mind into a lethal Brown Note for anyone who tries to read it.
  • Warhammer 40,000 has the Tyranids. Every psyker who's tried to plumb the Hive Mind of a Swarm has ended up absolutely, incurably insane.
    • Except of course the Chief Librarian of Mary Sue chapter, Tigurius. I mean, it wouldn't be fair if something was impossible for the Ultramarines.
    • And the ones who simply have fatal seizures.
  • In Dark Heresy, using any telepathy power on any character who has more insanity points or corruption points than yourself may lead to 'spillage' and having the telepath gaining a few of their own. Playing a telepath quickly leads to the character either becoming the craziest, most corrupt member of the team, or learning to only use them on people you already know to be pure.
  • While there aren't any formal rules associated with mind-reading in The Dresden Files, the section on the Third Law of Magic heavily invokes this trope as one reason why breaking said Law is a bad idea — especially with regard to any nonhuman targets (technically not covered by the Law) that a human would-be mind reader might be tempted to try his or her trick on. An actual soulgaze (see above under Literature) does explicitly automatically involve a mutual psychic attack.

    Video Games 
  • Metal Gear Solid has Psycho Mantis. He stated in his Final Speech that as a kid he was unable to shut off his powerful Mind Reading ability (learning that his father hated and likely wanted to kill him, ouch), and that apparently looking too deep in too many minds of Serial Killers drove him off the deep end. Apparently he still couldn't completely shut off his Telepathy since he asked for his mask back to block the voices out, and complained about "how everyone thinks of only one thing".
    • He even mind controls Meryl a minute earlier and makes her behave like some sort of a caricature, a sex-crazed meat puppet.
      PM: In my lifetime I've read the pasts, presents and futures of thousands upon thousands of men and women... and each mind that I peered into was stuffed with the same single object of obsession: That selfish and atavistic desire to pass on one's seed. It was enough to make me sick... every living thing on this planet exists to mindlessly pass on their DNA.
  • Satori from Touhou is widely feared and hated because of her powers (and her lack of discretion about them). However, she is still liked by animals that can't speak, and by animal youkai who befriended her as non-speaking animals. The non-predator kinds, of course. Predators like her too, but in the way mind-reading makes it nightmare fuel to poor Satori.
    • Her younger sister, Koishi, hated this so much she closed off her mind reading third-eye. This came with a whole bunch of side effects like immunity to mind reading, the ability to read and mess with people's subconscious mind, and, unfortunately, also left her unable to read her own mind which has resulted in her becoming devoid of feelings and thoughts.
    • In fandom, Satori is frequently portrayed as subject to this trope in other ways, getting easily frightened by violent thoughts or offended at dirty thoughts.
    • The girl who knew too much.
  • In Psychonauts cracking open one of the mental vaults in the mind of Sasha Nein reveals that as a young boy he ran away from home after reading his father's mind and seeing some things about his late mother that would be rather traumatizing to a growing boy.
  • In Da Capo, Kotori actually does like her mind reading ability. However...
    1. It lets her know people only see her as the school idol and not as a fallible person.
    2. She now knows that they're extremely critical.
    3. Too much exposure to others makes her physically ill.
    4. Situations like when she accidentally mentions she used to bathe with her sister in front of Junichi are extremely embarrassing, apparently.
  • In Sam & Max: Freelance Police episode 102, Hugh Bliss reads Max's mind, comments that what he read was "unspeakably depraved", whereupon Max says he's right.
    • In the Third Season, it is Max's turn to read the dankest recesses of peoples' minds.
  • In Fragile Dreams, Shin tries to end what's left of humanity because of this. However, at the very end it's revealed that the experiment which granted him the ability to pick up on the selfishness and hatred in the human psyche was flawed and incomplete. He loses the will to fight upon realizing that Sai loved him deeply, he simply didn't sense it.
  • Comes up briefly in Golden Sun: Dark Dawn. Sveta demonstrates her mind-reading power and then talks about how she'd rather not use it unless necessary, since reading minds full of hate caused her father to hate humans. Karis mentions that her father Ivan isn't as fond of his own telepathy these days as he used to be, and she's grateful she didn't inherit them.
  • In ADOM, using mindcraft powers on any undead will cause injury to your character, due to backlash from the horror of reading an undead mind. (This can be problematic, since mindcraft powers go through walls and a zombie could be lurking on the other side.) Using mindcraft on a corrupted creature will cause you to get corrupted.
  • Dawn of War 2 has a group of powerful psychics on board Gabriel Angelos's ship who weren't even trying to read the Tyranid Hive Mind, just push back its influence on the Warp so their ship could get back home safely. Only one survived even that indirect contact with the Hive Mind. And in his bad ending in Chaos Rising, the mental scars from that effort make it much easier for a daemon to possess him and force his betrayal.

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 
  • In Elcenia, Hearers go mad from constantly reading the minds of inanimate objects.
  • The Nostalgia Chick once tried copying the technique from What Women Want above to read the minds of men. All Men Are Perverts, apparently (not that she isn't), and her object of er...affection constantly thinks about her romantic rival. Also, they all think the exact same word over and over.
  • In My Little Pony: The Mentally Advanced Series Zecora's curse gave Fluttershy the ability to read minds. She insists it's this trope while everyone else bitches that she got the cool power.
  • Phase uses this to his advantage when dealing with Fubar and others attempting to read his mind: In the case of Fubar, he focuses hard on the sweet serenades of Britney Spears.
  • Raising Angels: All rooms in Mind Hall are singles and the room doors come standard with a very hardy lock. Being capable of reading the minds of man is apparently not conductive to a good nights sleep. Telepathics are stated to be a paranoid lot.

    Western Animation 
  • Not an actual telepathic example, but in Duckman, a New Age spiritualist decides to try and read Duckman's aura, which she describes as his essence, the very nature of his soul. She then runs away, shrieking in absolute horror.
  • Martian Manhunter goes through this from time to time; In an episode Justice League he is forced to read the thoughts of an entire city. The effect is... disillusioning to say the least. While he wasn't surprised by the hatred, the pure and constant selfishness of people almost made him leave the team because he was so disgusted by it, and wondered why he should even help them. He regained his faith in humanity, though, when he stumbled upon a search party looking for a little girl in the woods and "heard" all the thoughts concerned purely with helping a lost little kid. Even the ones who weren't even related to her only cared about finding her.
    • Invoked by Batman in an earlier episode, when almost the entire League is incapacitated by a Dream Walker villain. Batman is the last of them to keep himself awake and warns the bad guy that his mind is not a nice place to be. As in, even a hostile intruder would take damage from the kind of thoughts Bruce lives with all the time.
  • Variant: In The Fairly Oddparents, Timmy wishes to get mind-reading, and unfortunately, the banal thoughts of everyone around him overload his head.
  • In the fourth Futurama movie, Fry suddenly gains mind-reading abilities, and is soon overwhelmed by the random brain-chatter of everyone around him. After he figures out what's going on (and realizes he isn't invisible) a mind-reading hobo gives him a Tinfoil Hat to block the brainwaves.
  • In an episode of the US Acres side of Garfield and Friends, aliens give Orson the pig a device that gives him the power to read minds ("how did you know I wanted the power to read minds?" Orson asked, and quickly realized it was a stupid question). He uses it to topple a corrupt game show, but then throws it into a river because it's a power he decides he doesn't want. The episode closes with the alien on his ship in the company of another alien, who is concerned that the Earthling would not know what to do with it. The alien who gave the device to Orson then turns on the viewscreen and they remotely observe Orson throwing the device into the river, and the episode ends with the alien who gave it to him saying "See? He knew exactly what to do with it."


Meditation PowerupParanormal TropesThe Mirror Shows Your True Self
Lonely at the TopSour Grapes TropesMisery Builds Character
Ambition Is EvilPower at a PriceArmor and Magic Don't Mix
Mind Control MusicMind ManipulationMind Probe
Milholland Relationship MomentExample as a ThesisMind Over Manners
Ambiguously HumanSpeculative Fiction TropesAmusing Alien
American DreamCynicism TropesAnarchy Is Chaos
Millionaire PlayboyCharacterization TropesA Minor Kidroduction
Miming the CuesNarrative DevicesMind Rape
Maybe Magic, Maybe MundaneMagic and PowersMind Over Manners

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