What Are UFOs? Select Theories and Shifting Scientific Stances

By: Robert Lamb & Desiree Bowie  | 
Grainy, black and white photo of a flying saucer over a mostly empty desert highway
For many, the term "UFO" conjures the image of a flying disc soaring through the night sky. But what is a UFO, really? Joe McBride / Getty Images

You glimpse a light in the night sky. It's not a star or 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. And you likely have Hollywood to thank for this line of thinking.

These mysterious objects have played a prominent role in pop culture, captivating imaginations and fueling speculation. From classic films like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" to TV shows like "The X-Files," UFOs have become symbols of mystery and the unknown and mainstays in literature, music and art.


We know what Hollywood has to say about these mystery objects, but what are UFOs actually doing up in the sky in real life? And is there a massive government cover-up surrounding their existence? In this article, we'll take a closer look at these airborne objects, their potential link to extraterrestrial life and popular conspiracies about them.

What Is a UFO?

Technically, an unidentified flying object (UFO) can be anything when you get right down to it, but the term has become synonymous with spacecraft of extraterrestrial origin.

Alleged sightings became a popular topic of conversation in the mid-20th century and continue to this day. Exact descriptions of alien spacecraft vary with each telling, but witnesses and UFO enthusiasts 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. 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.

The Scientific Stance on Unidentified Flying Objects

For decades, scientists didn't have much to say about these unidentified objects. From a scientific standpoint, there was never enough sufficient evidence in UFO records 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 the scientific method, humanity's best sieve for separating reality from fantasy.


In recent years, the field has begun to approach UFOs with a stance of curiosity and skepticism. NASA, guided by administrator Bill Nelson, now aims to play a more prominent role in this research, emphasizing the importance of scientific methodology and instruments to gather data.

This shift signifies a desire to move beyond sensationalism and tabloid speculation, toward a more rigorous scientific approach.


Fire in the Sky

This painting by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich depicts biblical shepherds experiencing an angelic encounter.
Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

Religious Interpretations

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 an aerial event brought on by the Virgin Mary.

During this event, known as "the Miracle of the Sun," witnesses say the sun appeared to dance, change colors and spin.

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 they are both special for having experienced it and normal for sharing such experiences with others. Perform an online search for "UFO support group," and see for yourself.


Evaluating UFO Reports and Alien Abductions

Alien abduction experiences are often traumatic.
Chip Simons/Taxi/Getty Images

Accounts of alien abduction often factor into UFO sightings, and this is also 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, which are often charged by the person'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. 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].

Other Potential Causes

Researchers may attribute abduction experiences to a host of additional causes, including schizophrenia, organic brain syndrome, bipolar disorder, delayed post-traumatic stress disorder or even food allergies.

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 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."

In the late 1990s, psychologists Roy F. Baumesiter and Leonard S. Newman furthered this viewpoint by arguing that abduction encounters are essentially subconscious 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.


Unidentified Aerial Phenomena: A New Term Emerges

Breaking news: The term "UFO" is on its way out. Well, for the U.S. government, that is.

The feds began making the shift from "unidentified flying object" to "unidentified anomalous phenomena" (UAP) in 2020 when the UAP Task Force was established to encourage pilots to report sightings without fear of stigma or career repercussions. The scientific community is actively seeking better data on UAPs to gain a deeper understanding.


NASA also gathered a panel of 16 experts to assess how data on UAPs is collected across government and private sectors. Their final report, released in September 2023, found no evidence of extraterrestrial origins for UAPs but acknowledged that a small subset of encounters defies explanation.

UAPs and the Government

During a 2023 congressional hearing on UAPs, three military veterans testified about their experiences and concerns. One former Air Force intelligence officer alleged the existence of a secret government program for decades, involving the reverse engineering of recovered UFOs and the retrieval of non-human biological materials from alleged crash sites.

However, much of the discussion during the hearing focused on improving the reporting process for UAPs. The veterans called for destigmatizing UAP reporting and ensuring government program oversight. The Defense Department stated that it had not found any verifiable information supporting claims of extraterrestrial material possession or reverse engineering.


Retired Maj. David Grusch, a whistleblower who had been part of the Pentagon's UAP Task Force, claimed to know the exact locations of UAPs in U.S. possession but couldn't provide further details publicly. He stated his information came from reliable sources and shared evidence kept secret from Congress.

The hearing also featured testimony from former Navy fighter pilot Ryan Graves, who described encountering unusual aircraft off the coast of Virginia Beach, and retired Cmdr. David Fravor, who witnessed a mysterious "Tic Tac"-shaped flying object in 2004. Both emphasized the need for transparency and acknowledged the superior technology of the encountered objects.

The hearing aimed to pressure intelligence agencies for greater transparency on UAPs, citing potential national security threats. Lawmakers, witnesses and advocates called for a centralized reporting system to encourage reporting and eliminate stigma, emphasizing the importance of understanding these phenomena for both safety and scientific reasons.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • 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.