Note this is an unedited version.
It may be slightly different from the published version.
The outer door
slammed shut and a deathly hush descended on the tiny soundproofed
room. Half an hour in here, lying in a kind of dentist's reclining
chair, might have seemed a restful prospect - except for the
converted motorcycle helmet on my head. Embedded in either side of
it, just above my ears, were sets of solenoids. Soon these would be
delivering pulses of a magnetic field designed to mimic the firing
patterns of neurons in the temporal lobes of the brain.
Welcome to the
laboratory of Michael Persinger, a neuro-scientist at Laurentian
University of Sudbury, Ontario. Persinger has long claimed that
mystical experiences, out-of- the-body excursions and other psychic
experiences are linked in some way to excessive bursts of electrical
activity in the temporal lobes. It is known that people vary in what
is called "temporal lobe lability''. People with high lability have
very ''unstable'' temporal lobes with frequent bursts of electrical
activity that can be seen on an EEG (electroencephalograph). Such
people tend, he claims to be anxious and judgmental as well as
artistic. People with low lability, by contrast, rarely show bursts
of activity in their temporal lobes and are much less imaginative.
need expensive EEG tests to measure temporal lobe lability. Instead
they can use questionnaires designed to test a wide range of
experiences and beliefs, from deja vu to headaches. In a series of
studies of this kind, questioning about several hundred people in
all, Persinger has found that people with high lability more
frequently report sensations of floating, flying or leaving the body
as well as mystical and psychic experiences. At the extreme end of
the scale are people with temporal lobe epilepsy Their temporal
lobes produce the violent, synchronized electrical activity
associated with seizures - and sometimes they too report deja vu,
mystical feelings, odd sensations or hallucinations just before a
connection may be that abnormal temporal lobe activity can occur in
response to a lack of oxygen. Persinger is one of several scientists
who have argued that this is why people who come close to death
experience tunnels, lights and sensations of leaving the body.
In the end,
however, these observations are nothing more than correlations They
don't prove that neural activity in the temporal lobes causes
psychic experiences -or even that it is an effect of psychic
experience. What has been missing is a direct demonstration that
specific experiences can be created by specific firing of neurons in
this part of the brain. Hence the soundproofed room, helmet and
magnetic pulses. Persinger believed that by applying magnetic fields
across the brain he could cause bursts of firing in the temporal
lobes - bursts just like those associated with the odd experiences.
If he could produce the experiences this way, the link with the
temporal lobes would be certain.
The reason I was
willing to subject myself to this procedure was not just idle
curiosity The BBC's science programme Horizon had asked me to
investigate the origin of the latest American craze in crazy
experience - abduction by aliens. The details vary. Not everyone
claims to have been taken from their bedroom. Some report abductions
from their cars or in the street. And many abductees, although not
all, say that they saw children or babies while they were "away".
Despite that, the stories are more remarkable for their consistency
than their differences. A typical report might run as follows.
"I woke up in the
middle of the night and everything looked odd and strangely lit. At
the end of my bed was a 4 feet high grey alien. Its spindly, thin
body supported a huge head with two enormous, slanted, liquid black
eyes. It compelled me, telepathically, to follow and led me into a
spaceship, along curved corridors to an examination room full of
tables on which other people lay. I was forced to lie down while
they painfully examined me, extracted ova (or sperm) and implanted
something in my nose. I could see jars containing half-human,
half-alien fetuses and a nursery full of silent sickly children.
When I eventually found myself back in bed, several hours had gone
recall their experiences in full detail, but for many the "memories"
emerge only when they take themselves to a therapist for hypnotic
regression. These tales are easy to mock. Why do the aliens always
pick Americans? How come they are clever enough to teleport through
walls, and to read and erase our memories - but all we have to do to
defeat them is a little hypnosis? And if they really put implants in
people's noses, how come these always seem to be sneezed out?
accounts are merely the delusions of the disturbed or the mentally
ill. This is easy to counter. Studies of abductees have shown that
they are of at least average intelligence, from a wide range of
social classes and show no particular signs of mental disturbance or
pathology. So what is the explanation? Are alien abduction stories
telling us sometime about the way the mind works?
question for neuroscience is the precise relationship between
subjective experience and neural firing. In some cases things are
relatively simple. A flash of light, for example, produces a cascade
of electrical responses at the back of the cortex, while listening
to someone speak produces a burst of activity in the left
hemisphere. Far less obvious, though, is how patterns of brain
activity produce complex subjective states - such as the sensation
of having been abducted by an alien.
complicated by the fact that some abductors only ''recall'' their
experiences under hypnosis. Maybe the hypnotists implanted the
ideas, creating "memories" of things that never happened. This takes
us to the broader issue of false memories (see "When memory plays us
false", New Scientist, 23 July). The key thing here is that ''false
memories" are not so different from "true memories''. In a sense,
all memories are false. There is no tape recorder in the brain.
Rather, research suggests that we use stored information to
reconstruct accounts of past events When we retell those events, it
is easy to recall our own retelling more clearly than the original
experience - even if we've exaggerated it a bit along the way. How,
then, can we decide which memories were "real" and which imagined?
There is no magic way to the right answer, and some theorists think
it just depends on how readily available an image is. If it is clear
and detailed and easy to bring to mind, it will be remembered as
When memory is
seen this way the phenomenon of false memory seems less bizarre.
Take recent experiments by Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist from
Seattle, Washington. She invited volunteers into her laboratory and
tried to implant in them the "memory'' of being lost in a shopping
mall as a young child. The subjects had never actually been lost
this way (as far as anyone knew) but their relatives took part by
'reminding'' them of the event. Afterwards the subjects
''remembered'' the events clearly and, even when Loftus tried to
debrief them, some remained convinced that it had happened.
What does this
tell us about alien abductions? First, we must not be diverted by
the red herring of hypnosis. Not all abductees are hypnotised, and
"false memories'' can be created without hypnosis. If you come up
with a fantasy of an abduction, then you may well recall it as
though it is real whether or not hypnosis is involved.
memory cannot be the whole story. In general, we are quite good at
distinguishing fantasy from reality, in spite of the blurred edges,
and we do not create false memories entirely out of the blue. Even
if false memory plays a role in alien abduction episodes, wouldn't
there have to be some kind of core event to build the fantasies
around? If so, what might this event be?
One suggestion is
sleep paralysis. During normal REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when
the majority of dreams occur, the skeletal muscles are paralysed.
This is presumably so that we do not act out our dreams, as animals
have been shown to do when the brain centres controlling sleep are
suppressed Normally, we are unaware of this, but occasionally we can
become mentally alert while the paralysis persists. Waking up this
way can be extremely unpleasant. Yet it is quite common, surveys
show that about 20 per cent of people have experienced sleep
paralysis at some time or another.
Trying to move -
and failing - makes it worse and often provokes the sense that there
is someone or something trying to squash, strangle or suffocate you.
Sexual arousal during dreams is common and may add a particularly
powerful edge to the experience.
Some cultures have
built elaborate myths around sleep paralysis. Fabled demons, the
incubus and succubus, come to have sex with their unwilling victims
in the dead of night, and during the Middle Ages many a virgin or
nun was reputedly visited by the evil incubi who came to tempt them.
In myths common in Newfoundland, the Old Hag comes and presses on
sleepers' chests, suffocating them and preventing them from moving.
And the hill people of Laos and Vietnam talk of a Grey Ghost who
paralyses victims in the dark.
may just be a modern equivalent of a sleep paralysis myth. It makes
sense that in late 20th century Western culture the spaceship and
the alien would form its basis. But why the odd lights and other
Eerie lighting is
common in another kind of sleep disturbance - the false awakening -
in which you dream you have woken up. Although you are convinced you
are awake, things don't look quite right and familiar objects can
seem lit from within. In this state anything is possible because you
are still dreaming, but the apparent familiarity of the environment
means that the experiences are more likely to be interpreted as
real. This is one variety of what Celia Green, a parapsychologist
with an independent laboratory in Oxford, refers to as a "metachoric
experience'' where the perceived world is replaced by an imagined
A link between
sleep disturbance and apparent abductions is lent some support by
the research of the late Nicholas Spanos and his colleagues at
Carleton University in Ottawa. They compared groups of people who
had had intense UFO experiences, such as abduction, with those who
had had less intense experiences and found that the former were more
often related to sleep.
But even if sleep
phenomena are part of the answer, that doesn't explain the sense of
being taken away bodily, of flying or floating and going on a
journey. Enter Persinger and his idea that abduction-like
experiences are caused by complex patterns of atoms in the temporal
lobes. He argues that people with very labile temporal lobes will
naturally have such experiences from time to time. These are
particularly likely to occur during sleep and so these people might
easily wake up with odd bodily sensations and feelings of floating
magnetic effects from earthquakes could be strong enough to set off
the necessary firing. To test this he looked for, and found, a
strong link between the dates of seismic events and claims of UF0
sightings, abductions and other strange phenomena from past
centuries. Nor can hysteria and fear be the sole explanations, he
argues. Reports of strange experiences peaked in the weeks and
months before earthquakes, says Persinger, when magnetic changes
might have been happening, but little else to suggest an imminent
Those who believe
that abductions really happen have tried to counter this theory by
showing that abductees do not score higher on measures of temporal
lobe lability. But arguments have raged over whether enough people
were tested, and whether their experiences were really abductions.
Now, in a bid to settle the issue, Persinger is turning to direct
simulations. And this is where my experiences in the lab chamber
come into the picture.
I was wide awake
throughout. Nothing seemed to happen for the first ten minutes or
so. Instructed to describe aloud anything that happened, I felt
under pressure to say something, anything. Then suddenly my doubts
vanished. "I'm swaying. It's like being on a hammock.” Then it felt
for all the world as though two hands had grabbed my shoulders and
were bodily yanking me upright. I knew I was still lying in the
reclining chair, but someone, or something, was pulling me up.
to get hold of my leg and pull it, distort it, and drag it up the
wall. It felt as though I had been stretched half way up to the
ceiling. Then came the emotions. Totally out of the blue, but
intensely and vividly I suddenly felt angry - not just mildly cross
but that clear-minded anger out of which you act - but there was
nothing and no one to act on. After perhaps ten seconds, it was
gone. Later, it was replaced by an equally sudden attack of fear. I
was terrified - of nothing in particular. The long term medical
effects of applying strong magnetic fields to the brain are largely
unknown, but I felt weak and disoriented for a couple of hours after
coming out of the chamber.
Of course, I knew
that it was all caused by the magnetic field changes, but what would
people feel if such things happened spontaneously in the middle of
the night? Wouldn't they want, above all, to find an explanation, to
find out who had been doing it to them? If someone told them an
alien was responsible and invited them to join an abductees' support
group, wouldn't some of them seize on the idea, if only to reassure
themselves that they weren't going mad?
One last thought.
Persinger applied a silent and invisible force to my brain and
created a specific experience for me He claimed that he was
imitating the basic sequences of the processes of memory and
perception and that, by varying those sequences, he could control
my experience. Could he have done it from a distance? Could it
be done on a wider scale? Suddenly prospects of magnetic mind
control seem an awful lot worse than the idea of being abducted by