The outer door slammed firmly shut, and a deathly
hush descended on the tiny red-lit, sound-proofed room in which I half
lay, half sat, in a kind of dentists reclining chair. Half an hour
alone in here might have seemed a pleasantly 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 about to deliver a pulsed
magnetic field designed to mimic the firing patterns of the temporal lobes
of my brain.
I was in the laboratory of Michael Persinger,
a neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. Persinger
has long claimed that mystical experiences, out-of-body excursions and
all sorts of psychic occurrences, are associated with excessive firing
in the temporal lobes. The evidence is suggestive, but has always been
essentially correlational. People with more unstable temporal lobes have
more psychic experiences. Temporal lobe epileptics sometimes report deja-vu
or hallucinations just before seizures. Temporal lobe activity is implicated
in the effects of anoxia in near-death experiences. But there are many
possible reasons for such correlations apart from cause and effect. What
has been missing is a direct demonstration that specific experiences can
be created by specific firing in this part of the brain.
The reason I was willing, indeed keen, to let
myself in for this experiment was that I was trying to understand the
origin of the latest craze in crazy experience - abduction by aliens.
Although the details vary - some people are taken
from their cars or in the street, for example, and not all see children
or babies - the stories are more remarkable for their consistency than
their differences. A typical report may go something like this.
I woke up in the middle of the night and
everything looked odd, and strangely lit. At the end of my bed was a
four-foot 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 foetuses and a nursery full of silent, sickly children. When
I eventually found myself back in bed, several hours had gone by.
Some recall their experiences in full detail,
but for many abductees the "memories" emerge only when they
take themselves to a therapist for hypnotic regression.
This leads to the idea that there may be many
unwitting abductees. Indeed a recent, highly publicised, Roper poll claimed
that nearly four million Americans may be abductees. The poll itself is
a nightmare of assumptions and logical leaps. The four million is extrapolated
from the fact that two per cent of the respondents reported certain experiences.
Yet they did not report abductions; they simply answered "yes"
to a number of questions about sleep paralysis, sensations of flying or
leaving the body, seeing unusual lights and finding puzzling scars on
their body. This does not add up to having been abducted.
Cheap jokes are easy to make. Why do the aliens
always pick Americans first? 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 peoples noses how come these always seem to be sneezed out and
dont show up on the X-ray.
Another common response is to dismiss abductions
accounts as delusions of the mentally ill. This is easy to counter; personality
studies of abductees have shown that they are of at least average intelligence,
from a wide range of social situations, and show no particular signs of
mental disturbance or pathology.
It is still easy to dismiss the whole thing as
ridiculous, but I think this would be missing a real opportunity to learn
something about the mind.
The fundamental question for neuroscience is
the precise relationship between subjective experience and neural firing.
A flash of light produces an evoked potential in visual cortex; activity
increases in the left hemisphere when using verbal skills. It is far less
obvious how complex subjective states arise from brain activity - yet
surely it is an assumption of neuroscience that they do. If we could understand
the neural basis of something as bizarre as an abduction experience we
might learn a lot about both mind and brain.
The abduction experience is unfortunately complicated
by the fact that some - though not all - abductees only "recall"
their experiences under hypnosis. This naturally raises accusations of
FMS - or False Memory Syndrome - that the hypnotists themselves have implanted
the ideas and created "memories" for things that never happened.
The comparison is made with "recovered memories" of child abuse
in which therapists hypnotically regress clients and convince them of
the reality of terrible childhood traumas.
There is much hype and misunderstanding around
the concept of false memory. False memory is not something completely
different from "true memory". Indeed to some extent you could
say that all memories are false. There is no tape recorder in the brain.
Rather, research shows that we use stored information to reconstruct plausible
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
weve 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 "real".
When memory is seen this way the phenomena of
false memory seem less bizarre. Take recent experiments by Elizabeth Loftus,
a psychologist from Seattle, Washington. She wanted to bring false memory
research from the comparative sterility of laboratory events to genuine
emotional ones. She invited people into her lab and chose 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 unsuspecting subjects "remembered" the
events clearly and, even when Loftus tried to debrief them, some remained
convinced that it had actually happened.
This should not unduly surprise us. Do we really
remember that time on the beach when we were six or did we just invent
it from the photo in the family album? We shall never know, and we are
at liberty to convince ourselves that our memories are accurate - until
we see laboratory demonstrations like this when we know for sure that
they are not.
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. In any case there is nothing magic about hypnosis itself.
Its power probably lies in the way subjects are relaxed and encouraged
to use their powers of imagery and fantasy. If you are asked to "go
back" to the night of your "missing time" and talk about
what happened, and if you come up with a fantasy of an abduction, then
you may well recall it as though it is real. But so will you recall a
similar fantasy invented in the quietness of your own bed or in late-night
story-telling with your friends. So, whether hypnosis is involved or not,
false memory may well be a factor.
However, false memories 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 invent false recollections entirely
out of the blue. My suspicion is that, even if false memory plays a role,
there would have to be some kind of core event for the fantasies to build
around. But what?
One suggestion is sleep paralysis. During normal
REM 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, especially if you dont know what is
happening. Yet it is quite common; surveys show that about 20 per cent
of people have experienced sleep paralysis at some time or another. Some
people learn ways out of it, such as wiggling one toe, or just lying back
and waiting for it to pass. 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. 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 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.
Alien abductions may just be a modern equivalent
of a sleep paralysis myth. It makes sense that in late 20th century Western
culture the space ship and the alien would form its basis. But why the
odd lights and other consistent features?
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 dont 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 Oxford psychologist Celia Green refers
to as a "metachoric experience" - one in which the perceived
world is replaced by an imagined replica.
The association of sleep disturbances with 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
having less intense experiences and found that the former were more often
Sleep phenomena may be part of the answer but
what about the sense of being taken bodily away, of flying or floating
and going on a journey? I was still looking for explanations for these
and this is why I came to Persingers laboratory.
Persingers theory is that abduction-like
experiences are caused by complex patterns of activity in the temporal
lobes. People vary in how stable their temporal lobes are and he argues
that those with the most unstable activity may have the experiences spontaneously.
In addition magnetic effects from earthquakes
could set off the necessary firing. To test this he looked for, and found,
a strong correlation between the dates of seismic events and claims of
UFO sightings, abductions and other strange phenomena from past centuries.
Interestingly the recent claims that earthquakes and thunderstorms can
create visible lights might provide the link between UFOs and abduction
Those who believe in the literal reality of abductions
have tried to counter this theory by showing that abductees do not score
higher on measures of temporal lobe lability and arguments have raged
over whether the samples were adequate or the experiences really abductions.
But such arguments would lose their importance in the face of direct simulations
of the experiences.
For the first ten minutes or so nothing seemed
to happen .To tell the truth I felt rather daft. Instructed to describe
aloud anything that happened I did not know what to say and felt under
pressure to say something - anything. Then suddenly all my doubts were
gone. "Im swaying. Its 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.
Something seemed to get hold of my leg and pull
it, distort it, and drag it up the wall. I 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 felt suddenly angry - not just mildly cross
but that sort of determinedly clear-minded anger out of which you act
- only there was nothing and no one to act on. After perhaps ten seconds
it was gone but later was replaced by an equally sudden fit of fear. I
was just suddenly terrified - of nothing in particular. Never in my life
have I had such powerful sensations coupled with the total lack of anything
to blame them on. I was almost looking around the little room to find
who was doing it.
Of course, I knew that it was all caused by the
magnetic field changes but what, I wondered, would I feel if such things
happened spontaneously. What if I woke in the middle of the night with
all those feelings? I knew I would want, above all, to find an explanation,
to find out who had been doing it to me. To have such powerful feelings
and no reason for them is horrible. You feel as if you are going mad.
If someone told me an alien was responsible and invited me to join an
abductees support group, I might well prefer to believe the idea;
rather than accept I was going mad.
An explanation in terms of brain events would
be better still. So, until we understand the brain better, and until we
learn to accept that things that seem real need not be, we cannot blame
people for interpreting their weird experiences as abductions.
One last thought. Persinger applied a silent
and invisible force to my brain and so created a specific experience for
me. He claimed 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 imaginary aliens.