What are UFOs really?

Evaluating Alien Abductions

Alien abduction experiences are often traumatic.
Alien abduction experiences are often traumatic.
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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 below to learn even more about aliens, paranormal experiences and the human mind.

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  • 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.