I suggested the title
Picture this: you are lying comfortably in bed when, suddenly, an intense white light surrounds you. You wake, but cannot move your limbs. Against your will, your body rises like a ghost through the roof of your house and into an immense, glowing craft hovering above. Inside, you are anchored to an examination table and odd child-like creatures with over-sized heads poke you expertly with instruments as you slip in and out of consciousness. You are returned to your bed and, in the morning, no one but you has noticed anything unusual.
Are you crazy, or what? Hardly. A recent study by a polling institute called The Roper Organization concluded that as many 3.7 million people in the United States may have had just such an experience! Although not many people take this number seriously, paranormal phenomena have taken on considerable significance in our society. There are legitimate psychologists who treat cases of people who may--or may not--have been abducted by aliens from outer space. TIME magazine reported that 69% of us believe in angels. Television shows like "The X-Files" and "Sightings" openly consider the possibility that some shrouded level of reality is being unveiled, whether spirit plane or advanced planet. What is going on?
The debate about the paranormal--events and experiences that defy ordinary explanations--is an old one, and it is heating up again. Over in one corner are skeptics with the scientific point of view that nothing exists beyond our direct perception of everyday physical reality. In the opposite corner are some enthusiastic New Age people who don't resist being called "believers." Not limited by the present laws of physics, believers take unusual phenomena seriously, from the predictions of Nostradamus to global military cover-ups. Also in the debate are religious zealots who think a deity is behind it all, as well faith healers, spiritualists, astrologers, space cadets and other folks from the lunatic fringe.
The alien abduction theme has been particularly popular lately. Taken at face value, these reports indicate that an alien race called "The Grays" is haphazardly kidnapping the good citizens of Earth and perhaps using them for genetic experiments or maybe trying to instill a mystic appreciation for goodness that will save us all. Can it be true that the Earth is being visited frequently by intelligent beings from elsewhere? Most people do think intelligent life exists out there, despite the fact that astronomers have no direct evidence for planets around other stars. Should such planets exist, it is pure speculation that they might harbour any kind of life. Anthropologists do not fully understand how intelligence developed on Earth in the first place, so even if there is life elsewhere, our intelligence may be utterly unique.
And if it turns out that there are older, wiser races, why does everyone take it for granted that all the barriers discovered by scientists here don't apply to extraterrestrials? The worst one is the nasty problem of distance: those other solar systems are so mind-bogglingly far away that interstellar travel requires a serious lifestyle adjustment. Yes, scientists have been wrong on occasion, but here's one 20th century discovery that is a really safe bet: nobody can travel faster than the speed of light, because Albert Einstein was right. A ship travelling to earth from halfway across the Galaxy would take at least 50,000 years to get here and another 50,000 to get home. Would it be worth the trip just for a sample of somebody's nose hair?
Maybe it would. Believers say that scientists shouldn't reject innovative explanations just because they don't make sense in our 20th century Western technological tradition. The aliens might have reasons we can't understand. But people who tell of being abducted do sense a purpose in the aliens' activities. John E. Mack, a Harvard psychologist who is among the growing number of health-care professionals who take abduction cases seriously, says that some of his subjects reported that the aliens are sinister; others felt that the aliens are here to heal or to educate. These are hardly mysterious motivations! Rather, these reports suggest that the people who report being abducted may themselves have their own reasons, whether mundane or enigmatic, for wanting to be threatened or healed or educated. If the aliens' purposes were truly inscrutable, the reports of the abductees would make utterly no sense at all. Nevertheless, after treating dozens of abductees himself, Mack has come to the bold conclusion that "we participate in a universe or universes that are filled with intelligences from which we have cut ourselves off."
According to skeptics, Mack fails to consider a better alternative: he should be studying what could make the mind of an otherwise-normal person believe that such a story could have actually taken place. The intelligence "from which we have cut ourselves off" lives not in some faraway galaxy but in our own cerebellum. Isn't it easier to believe there is something we do not understand about the wonderfully complex workings of the human brain than to believe that super-advanced civilizations are flitting about the universe, rousing ordinary mortals from their sleep? Even the late J. Allen Hynek, perhaps the most highly respected UFO investigator of them all, said that figuring out the truth behind UFOs is likely to tell us more about the human brain than about the existence of extraterrestrial beings.
Perhaps it is significant that many abduction experiences begin during sleep. Imants Baruss, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario's King's College, explains that "various things happen while you're asleep." There are two basic types of sleep, REM and non-REM. During REM ("rapid eye movement") sleep, your eyes constantly jiggle back and forth behind closed lids. Normal people cycle between long periods of non-REM sleep and short periods of REM sleep all night long, says Baruss. Non-REM sleep goes through four stages, and in the final stages, low-level activity in the brain can occur in unusual ways, like sleep-walking or "sleep terrors." Sleep terrors are not the same thing as nightmares, but sleep terrors can include such horrifying experiences as the feeling that a devil is pressing down on your chest. Researchers do not know exactly what is going on in the brain, but Baruss says people "have these filters through which we interpret everything cognitively to make sense of the experiences we have." These mental filters may leave just enough hints for the conscious mind to assemble a story. "It's possible that in cases where people say they've been abducted, this is what's happened," says Baruss.
Abductions, sleep terrors and even near-death experiences could all be related. A near-death experience typically involves the sensation of travel through a tunnel or corridor, towards a bright light, often with voices or images of friends and family encouraging the person to enter. But the subject does not die and instead returns to normal consciousness. Susan Blackmore, a researcher from Great Britain, suggests that just about everybody has unusual mental experiences. This could account for both the variety and the frequency of paranormal episodes. "I suspect there's a common explanation to be found underlying these experiences," and Blackmore says it lies in the brain. Blackmore submitted to an experiment in which the temporal lobes of the subject's brain are artificially stimulated. In her session Blackmore says "it was as though something had got hold of my left leg. Something was pulling me but I couldn't see what it was." Of course she was safe in the experimental chair the whole time.
Perhaps simply seeing an Unidentified Flying Object is enough for most people. So many people profess to have seen a UFO since pilot Kenneth Arnold saw the first "flying saucer" in 1947 that such claims hardly shock anyone anymore. Most UFO events are based on odd-shaped lights in the sky executing impossible maneuvers. In some stories, the UFO is close enough and large enough that people are convinced they can see exquisite details on the strange craft. But why would a spaceship that supposedly travels across the galaxy need lights on the outside?
If you hear a story about a UFO sighting, or see one yourself, of course you should begin by being skeptical. Someone here in London reported seeing lights that "looked like a helicopter, but they weren't a helicopter." How did the person know it wasn't a helicopter if all they could see was the lights, and the lights looked like a helicopter? Well-known London meteorologist Jay Campbell, who presents weather forecasts on CFPL-TV, says "it would be the rare month that we wouldn't have at least some people calling in who do not know what they are seeing in the sky. There's usually some kind of explanation."
Accounts that include pictures are more suspicious, not less. In a case in Norfolk, England, a strange shape photographed in the sky proved to be caused by the iris of the camera's zoom lens. Stanton Friedman, who was a NASA rocket scientist in the 1960s and then became a UFO investigator, lectured at UWO some years ago and showed what he claimed were the very best photos of UFOs ever taken. Yet every one was hopelessly out of focus and looked more like a hubcap or a doorknob thrown in the air than the product of a superior technology. Isn't it easier to believe that a person claiming to be a camera technology expert is not as much of an expert as they claim than to believe that extraterrestrials have come from light-years away just to laze about in our atmosphere?
A fashionable variation on the UFO phenomenon is that the military is involved somehow. One of the most famous UFO cases occurred near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. Saucers were seen, objects tracked on radar, and debris from a crash was recovered and confiscated by the military. Most versions of the story insist that the bodies of as many as nine alien beings were taken to a secret base. Only in September, 1994, did the U.S. Air Force issue a statement that the entire affair was sparked by testing of Project Mogul, a balloon-based system designed to detect Soviet atomic bomb tests. Skeptics accept the Air Force explanation and conclude that the part about the alien corpses was simply an embellishment added by yokels at the time, but believers continue to cry that the Air Force is hiding the rest of the story. Both sides of the debate often post messages on the Internet, where censorship is almost impossible. Perhaps easy access to the debate is part of the reason for the recent resurgence of interest in UFOs.
Terence Dickinson, a Canadian astronomy writer who recently was awarded the Order of Canada, has followed UFO stories in all their variations through his whole career. "Over the years I have become more and more skeptical," Dickinson says. "I am now convinced that the evidence supporting the idea that creatures from other solar systems are visiting Earth in our time is flimsy. It always was flimsy. There is no secret cache of evidence to support the extra-terrestrial hypothesis. When you dig into it, it's all stories. People love fantastic stories. That one unequivocal bit of irrefutable evidence is missing from every incident."
UFOs, abductions, near-death experiences and "Casper, The Ghost" are not likely to change scientists' view of reality. There is just enough psychological evidence for skeptics like Blackmore to claim that it is only a matter of time before a thorough explanation of paranormal phenomena is forthcoming. But there are always a few cases left over that are unusual and compelling, so the believers will always be able to claim that the paranormal is beyond scientific explanation. Like episodes of "The X-Files," the ending seems to slip maddeningly through our fingers just as we are about to grasp it. Believers continue to look beyond, while skeptics point a finger at their forehead and say "the truth is in here."