Date: Fri Nov 25 1994 19:13:00
From: Errol Bruce-knapp
Subj: New Scientist Article
NEW SCIENTIST - 19 November 1994 - Vol 144 No. 1952
Published by IPC Magazines Ltd., part of Reed Publishing Europe
Thousands of Americans believe the have had a close encounter of the
Susan Blackmore wonders what on Earth is going on...
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
dentists 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 neuroscientist 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 judgemental as well as artistic. People with low lability, by
contrast, rarely show bursts of activity in their temporal lobes and
are much less imaginative.
Researchers don't need expensive EEG tests to measure temporal lobe
lability. Instead they can use questionaires 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 pyschic experiences. At the exteme end of the
scale are people with temporal lobe epilepsy. Their temporal lobes
produce the violent, synchronised electrical activity associated with
seizures - and sometime they too report deja vu, mystical feelings,
odd sensations or halluciantions just before seizure.
One final 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
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 experinces. 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
abduction 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
"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 space ship, 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 by."
Some abductees 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
Maybe abduction 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 something about the way the mind works?
The fundamental question for neuroscience is 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
having been abducted by an alien.
Things are complicated by the fact that some abductees 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
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 "real".
When memory is seen this way the phnomenon of false memory seems
less bizzare. 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.
However, false 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.
Alien abductions 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 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 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 preceived world is replaced by
an imagined replica.
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.
Floating or Flying
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 activity
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 or flying.
In addition, 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 UFO 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 magentic changes might
have been happening, but little else to suggest an imminent seismic
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.
Something seemed 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 halfway
up to the ceiling. Then came the emotions. Totally out of the blue,
but intensely and vividly, I suddenly felt angry - not just mildy
cross but that clearminded 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 longterm 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
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 imginary
Susan Blackmore is senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of
the West of England, Bristol.
A BBC2 'Horizon' programme on alien abductions, "Close Encounters",
will be broadcast at 8 pm on 28 November (1994).