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What are UFOs really?

You glimpse a light in the night sky -- not a star, not an airplane, but something radically different. It moves with baffling speed, pulsates with radiance beyond anything you've witnessed. Three letters immediately enter your mind: U-F-O.

Technically an unidentified flying object can be anything when you get right down to it, but the term has become synonymous with extraterrestrial spacecraft. Alleged sightings began popping up in the 1950s and continue to this day throughout the world. Exact descriptions of alien spacecraft vary with each telling, but witnesses often describe a lighted object capable of hovering silently and zigzagging in midair.

The technology for such a craft and the ability for a living passenger to survive its g-forces are well beyond humanity's modern technology [source: Kaku]. Additionally, given the massive distance between habitable star systems, such craft would have to travel at impossible speeds or with patience that staggers the imagination.

What else does science have to say on the matter? Not much. From a scientific standpoint, there's insufficient evidence to make a case for alien visitation. Most UFO sightings depend on fallible human accounts, imperfect footage and conspiracy theory. All of this tends to crumble under the scrutiny of scientific method, humanity's best sieve for separating reality from fantasy.

After all, scientific inquiry hinges on something called the null hypothesis, which means the burden of proof is on anyone making a positive claim. A dog ate your homework? Great, where's the testable evidence? You saw an alien spacecraft? Excellent, let's test and validate the story.

In other words, it's up to so-called ufologists to convince the scientific world that UFOs are alien spacecraft, not for scientists to prove them wrong. Along the same lines, the scientific world doesn't go on the defensive every time someone sees a ghost. Even in the presence of testable evidence, perfectly terrestrial claims demand rigorous testing and a high degree of certainty in the results [source: Shermer].

Although the scientific world remains unconvinced, countless individuals continue to witness unexplainable things in the sky, sights that haunt or inspire them until their dying days. In rare cases, whole crowds glimpse such phenomena. What are we to make of such claims?

This painting by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich depicts biblical shepherds experiencing an angelic encounter.

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Fire in the Sky

The sky has always teemed with sights to stir the imagination: atmospheric anomalies, wildlife, optical illusions, aurora borealis, shooting stars and distant supernovae just to name a few. Even in our scientifically informed age, countless phenomena escape our understanding.

As Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung pointed out, these sights have no intrinsic meaning, but even the earliest humans jumped at the chance to project their hopes, dreams and nightmares into the vastness of the sprawling void. They personified the sun and moon as deities and poured their belief systems into the wheeling movements of the stars. And when they glimpsed strange lights, they read them as omens. 

Just as the emotional resonance of a UFO sighting falls to the observer, so too does the explanation. Humans have always experienced brushes with the unknown, and they've always fished for explanations in the waters of their cultural worldview. In the absence of science, they turned to their religious beliefs, folktales and myth.

Consider the UFO encounter that took place in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. In what has subsequently been explained as everything from stratospheric dust to mass hallucination, thousands of witnesses in the predominantly Catholic town claimed to see the Virgin Mary arrive in "an airplane of light" [source: Radin]. Before the advent of Christianity, the same event would have likely been viewed through the lens of a pagan belief system. How do you think such an event would be interpreted in the entirely different world we know today?

By framing a bizarre occurrence within the context of a belief system or worldview, an individual attributes both a "what" and a "why" to the phenomenon. Such a view also helps sanction the experience and allow the individual to feel like he or she is both special for having experienced it and normal for sharing such experiences with others. Perform an Internet search for "UFO support group," and you'll see for yourself.

Alien abduction experiences are often traumatic.

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Evaluating Alien Abductions

Accounts of alien abduction often factor into UFO sightings, and this too is an area where one's worldview, belief system and culture play a vital role in framing an extraordinary experience. Fortunately, alien abduction accounts generally provide more room for serious evaluation, typically by medical doctors or psychiatrists.

Doctors believe that sleep paralysis and waking, hypnopompic hallucinations factor into many abduction experiences. This is a kind of temporary paralysis accompanied by visual and auditory hallucinations. The hallucinations in question are often charged by the individual's sexual fantasies, belief system and pop culture.

Imagine waking in your bed, unable to move and experiencing sexual hallucinations colored by your subconscious. The exact nature of the hallucinations would likely depend, like dreams, on the nature of your belief system and cultural literacy. You might experience the visitation of an angel or ghost. You might find yourself in the amorous embrace of a Greek deity. Likewise, you just might experience a transcendent walk through an alien spacecraft or endure uncomfortable probing at the hands of extraterrestrials.

Consider the case of science writer and Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer, who himself experienced an alien abduction. Or rather, he collapsed from sleep deprivation and exhaustion following an 83-hour bike ride in a transcontinental race. As Shermer's support team rushed over to him, the bicyclist saw them through the filter of a waking dream and perceived them as aliens from a 1960s TV series [source: Shermer].

Researchers may attribute abduction experiences to a host of additional causes, including schizophrenia, organic brain syndrome, bipolar illness, delayed post traumatic stress disorder or even food allergies [source: Rayl]. Neuroscientist Michael Persinger points the finger to the brain's temporal lobe. Persinger believes that temporal lobe anomalies, when combined with certain cultural expectations (such as beliefs in aliens or angels) can mislabel imagined experiences as actual experiences.

Even without the aid of neurological misfiring, human memory is a complex and fallible thing. Every day, we experience something new and turn that experience into an imperfect narrative. We can convince ourselves of nearly anything, especially when it fulfills a need.

So why do humans need visiting alien spacecraft and alien encounters? Perhaps Carl Jung put it best in a 1958 interview: "In our world, miracles do not happen anymore, and we feel that something simply must happen which will provide an answer or show the way out. So now these UFOs are appearing in the sky" [source: Tucker].

In the late 1990s, psychologists Roy F. Baumesiter and Leonard S. Newman furthered this viewpoint by arguing that abduction encounters are essentially subconsious attempts to rid oneself of self-awareness through masochistic fantasy. In lieu of mystic conviction, our minds staff these fantasies with aliens.

In addition, our cultural frame of reference continually changes. Some observers have even equated the recent decline in UFO sightings to the rise of the Internet. Cultural critic Ziauddin Sardar suggests that instead of projecting our hopes and fears into space, we project them into cyberspace.

So what are UFOs really? You might not find the answer amid the stars after all, but rather in the labyrinthine chambers of the human mind

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about aliens, paranormal experiences and the human mind.

Lots More Information

Sources

  • Blackmore, Susan. "Alien abduction." New Scientist. Nov. 19, 1994. (Nov. 8, 2010)http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/journalism/ns94.html
  • Kaku, Michio. "Prof Michio Kaku on the science behind UFOs and time travel." March 20, 2008. (Sept. 30, 2010)http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/3337049/Prof-Michio-Kaku-on-the-science-behind-UFOs-and-time-travel.html
  • Patry, Alain L. and Luc G. Pelletier. "Extraterrestrial Beliefs and Experiences: An Application of the Theory of Reasoned Action." The Journal of Social Psychology. 2001.
  • Radin, Dean. "The Enduring Enigma of the UFO." Shift: At the Frontiers of Consciousness. 2009.
  • Rayl, A. J. S. "Anatomy of an abduction." Omni. February 1995.
  • Sardar, Ziauddin. "Close encounters of the fourth kind." New Statesman. Sept 3, 2007.
  • Shermer, Michael. "Abducted." Scientific American. February 2005.
  • Shermer, Michael. "I want to believe." Scientific American. July 2009.
  • Tucker, Elizabeth. "Extraordinary sky and Weather phenomena, Motif F790." Archetypes & Motifs in Folklore & Literature: A Handbook. 2005.