On UFOs and hallucination-proneness

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Are UFOs just hallucinations?

A flying saucer casts a beam onto electrical wires.

How likely is it to hallucinate such a UFO?

Since at least the invention of writing, men and women have experienced all sorts of weird things (such as encounters with strange beings) which are completely at odd with the materialist worldview prevailing among modern Western scientists and intellectuals.

Among these stands the UFO phenomenon which is the main topic of this blog. Contrarily to widespread notions, UFO is NOT a synonym for alien spacecrafts but just means a flying object which cannot be explained with our current knowledge.

UFO deniers are proponents of the null-hypothesis according to which all sightings can be well accounted for through currently known physical or psychological mechanisms (or that they could be if only we disposed of more data).

One catch-all „explanation“ for really embarrassing cases involving only one witness consists of just claiming that he or she must have a „fantasy-prone personality„, which unlike a much more easily detectable schizophrenia involves non-psychotic people oftentimes appearing quite normal.

To quote Wikepedia,

A fantasy prone person is reported to spend a large portion of his or
her time fantasizing, have vividly intense fantasies, have paranormal experiences, and have intense religious experiences.[5] The fantasies may include dissociation and sexual fantasies. People with FPP are reported to spend over half of their time awake fantasizing or daydreaming and will often confuse or mix their fantasies with their real memories. They also report out-of-body experiences.[5]

A paracosm is an extremely detailed and structured fantasy world often created by extreme or compulsive fantasizers.[6]

Wilson and Barber listed numerous characteristics in their pioneer study, which have been clarified and amplified in later studies.[7][8] These characteristics are:

  1. excellent hypnotic subject (most but not all fantasizers)
  2. having imaginary friends in childhood
  3. fantasizing often as child
  4. having an actual fantasy identity
  5. experiencing imagined sensations as real
  6. having vivid sensory perceptions
  7. reputed paranormal experiences (claiming psychic powers,
    encountering apparitions, reliving past experiences, having out-of-body
    experiences, communicating with higher intelligences or spirits,
    claiming to be abducted by aliens)
  8. mystical experiences
  9. believe they have powers for spiritual healing or faith healing
  10. hypnogogic hallucinations (waking dreams)
  11. receiving sexual satisfaction without physical stimulation.

There has been several UFO-deniers arguing that if one can show that a UFO witness satisfies one or several of the above criteria, one has then strong positive grounds for asserting it was most likely a delusion.

This argument is extremely undermined by the fact that several of these very criteria already assume that there are no such things as paranormal events, a transcendent realm or otherwordly beings among us.

In green are criteria which (to my mind) would strongly suggest if not conclusively prove that a person is prone to experiencing complex full-fleshed hallucinations.

In purple are criteria that, if taken alone, would increase the probability of having such an experience but not to such an extent as making it likely to occur (I’m open to being refuted empirically for any one of this case).

In red are criteria which utterly beg the question towards those of us open to the existence of paranormal things.

In blue are ambiguous criteria: depending on the definition of words (such as „fantasizing“) used by the researcher they might either be valid or question-begging.
In what follows, I show how this kind of circular reasoning unfolds by critically examining a small part of the book Borderlands by Mike Dash, a British historian defending the null-hypothesis.

Another of the attractions of the fantasy-prone personality hypothesis is that it  explains why a proportion of those who encounter strange phenomena experience a variety of different enigma – like Sam Frew, who watched a UFO land, heard noises and then had his telepathic contact with Bigfoot. This sort of agglomeration of the bizarre can be seen in a number of high-strangeness cases  – notably the Maine UFO incident, which featured not only a UFO sighting and an abduction but unexplained sounds, mystical visions, poltergeist effects, men in black and telepathic messages. Sometimes this sort of pattern is sketched out over a lengthy period that culminates in one major incident; one French ufologist has christened this phenomenon the „build-up phase“, and it might be explained as a series of increasingly elaborate fantasies dreamed up by a fantasy-prone witness. 

It is possible to test the proposal that many of those who report unusual experiences will prove to be fantasy-prone, i.e. hallucination prone (my own remark) personalities? Apparently yes. 

There is considerable evidence that many UFO abductees and mediums exhibited signs of fantasy proneness as children. When she was eight years old, the great mental medium Mrs Leonore Piper was playing in the garden when she „suddenly felt a sharp blow on her right ear, accompanied by a prolonged sibilant sound. This gradually resolved itself into the letter „S“, which was then followed by words „Aunt Sarah not dead, but with you still“. 

‚A few weeks later the child cried out at night that she could not sleep because of the bright light in the room and all the faces in it‘. 

Her contemporary, Mrs Gladys Leonor, experienced even more obvious symptoms of fantasy proneness. As a child, she recorded in her autobiography, ‚in whatever direction I happened to be looking, the physical view of the wall, door, ceiling or whatever it was, would disappear, and in its place would gradually come valleys, gentle slopes, lovely trees and banks covered with flowers of every shape and hue. The scene seemed to extend for miles, and I was conscious that I could see much farther than was possible with the ordinary physical scenery around me.‘

Similarly, Catherine Miller, the Martian medium of the 1890s, spent her childhood in revolt against what the psychologist Theodore Flournoy termed „the humdrum surroundings in which fate had caused her to be born“.

Though physically healthy, she was prone to hallucinations, visions and premonitions, and even serious questioned whether she was really her parents‘ child: was it not possible, she asked them, that her nurse had brought the wrong baby home from an afternoon walk? 

Catherine Laboure, the French nun whose vision of the Virgin Mary in 1830 is among the most formative strange experience on record, „had a penchant for seeing apparitions, notably of St Vincent de Paul, the founder of her order, and also claimed to have a personal „angel“, a „child of about five who was radiant with light“.‘ 

One of Nigel Watson’s UFO witnesses, Paul Benett, saw his first flying disc when he was nine years old. It shot past his window while he was lying in bed, almost close enough to touch but making no noise. Subsequently, he saw several other UFOs and even what appeared to be an extraterrestrial robot, all of which appeared near his home in Bradford while he was in the company of friends. Bennett experienced apparent psychokinetic effects, too: his bedroom light had switched itself on and off and alarm clock fell to the floor. He also dreamed of UFO sightings, and sleepwalked about once a month.

Citizens of dreamland?

An otherwordly majestic landscape.

Dreamland as many of us could imagine it.

As I added and emphasized in the text, for his argument to work, being „fantasy-prone“ must be understood as entailing being „hallucination-prone“.

Let us now consider those investigators among us who are either open to the existence of paranormal phenomena or to a transcendent realm populated with unknown beings (as most religions teach). Researchers such as the great French-born ufologists Jacques Vallee believe that the UFO-phenomenon is one possible shape among many that beings from parallel dimensions can take while appearing to us.

Now do the facts Nike Dash mentioned provide such people with compiling reasons for concluding all these experiencers suffered from delusions?

With the possible exception of Catherine Miller, I fear he falls far short of this goal.

Clearly, if space aliens or interdimensional beings are among us, there is nothing (a-priori) unlikely for Paul Benett to first experience them in various ways as a child before having a sighting as an adult.

If there really is an afterlife and a way for dead persons to communicate with living ones, there is nothing implausible about „Leonore Piper“ first experiencing this with her aunt as a child.

Likewise, if there is a transcendent realm populated with spiritual beings, there is nothing unlikely about Gladys Leonor and Catherine Labour having such visions repeatedly during the course of their life.
IF these are the only criteria for concluding they were hallucination-prone individuals, it seems we are completely begging the question.

So I think it is fair to say they don’t provide people either believing in parallel realms or being utterly agnostic about them with any ground for concluding that solely delusions were involved.
(Whilst it’s off topic, I can’t resist the temptation to point out that Dash seems to entirely trust the autobiography of Gladys Leonor. Yet under many other circumstances Skeptics would deny such information on the grounds that human memory is unreliable. So there seems to be some cherry-picking going on here.)

Towards a non-circular debunking argument

There has been several attempts in the literature to debunk putative UFOs and paranormal phenomena in this way [1], [2], [3] (but see also [4] for conflicting studies).

I think they should be taken with a grain of salt given that they rely on the question-begging criteria we’ve been talking about until now.

It goes without saying they’re valid for psychologists convinced (on other grounds) that the material world is all that there is and that our blue planet has never been visited by any extraterrestrial life form.

They do not allow them, however, to engage into meaningful dialogs with those disagreeing with their worldview.

Is there a way for Skeptics to design an empirical argument which, if valid, would also lead agnostics and believers alike to reject the truth of a great number of sightings, contact and abduction reports?

I appear to think there is one.

It relies on the concept of a „Unreliable Witness“ which goes beyond the question of fantasy-proneness considered up to that point.
It consists of relying on one single overall question for the identification of an unreliable experiencer, namely: „Does the individual regularly experience or remember demonstrably false mundane things?“.

If it could be shown so, I would not trust such a an individual (without corroborating evidence) if he or she were to tell me that someone broke into my house.

It stands to reason I would trust him even less for claims about statistically far rarer events such as having experienced an unidentified atmospheric phenomenon.

I’m convinced that the same principle should be applied by any other rational agnostic or believer: if there is good evidence that a UFO witness falls within that category, we have no reason to believe his story and strong statistical grounds for concluding it never happened.

An important caveat is that it must be shown the person was an Unreliable Witness BEFORE having had the sighting or encounter. If the individual belonged to the general population prior to the event and developed these false experiences or/and memories only later, the argument would of course completely collapse.

If Skeptics are successful in showing that a great part of the mysterious UFO reports stem from such Unreliable Witnesses, they’ll also automatically strongly undermine our confidence in any sighting from someone with unknown background.

There is another possible result which might spring out of the question I’ve emphasized in green. It might turn out there is (also) a significant number of persons who are NOT more prone to unreal experiences and memories about mundane things than the general population but do at the same time also experience telepathy, telekinesis, out of body experiences and extraterrestrial encounters.

If that proved to be the case, it’d sound very implausible to explain away their paranormal experiences through a delusional tendency which fails to also manifest itself in the mundane domains of their lives.

It would then seem far more likely there are unknown factors at play. This in turns might or might not be compatible with our current scientific view of the world.

On hallucinations and reliable witnesses

Let us now suppose that Skeptics managed to conclusively demonstrate that a huge proportion of persons experiencing truly puzzling sightings prove to be unreliable according to my definition.

Would this give them a justification for systematically brush aside any weird report out of hand?

I think it would be irresponsible to do so without a further thorough analysis. Interestingly, many debunkers seem to agree with me on that one. They first try to account for a case through conventional natural and man-made causes coupled with optical illusions and only speak of a delusion when they realize that the explanations they provided don’t hold water (and they rarely come to such a realization).

I think that the same practical criteria as those used by the police hold in such cases. Long before phrases such as „schizoid-type personality“ or „fantasy-prone disorders“ were coined, policemen have known all too well that a certain part of the population is prone to reporting false experiences. But they also knew how to recognize that a witness is most likely trustworthy.
Let us consider the case of former East-German Mayor Oskar Linke. He saw a truly unidentified craft with weird occupants standing besides.

A man pries into two weird beings standing beside a UFO.

Close encounter of former Eastern-German Mayor Oskar Linke.

After his daughter who was standing farther from the location called to him, the beings ran back to their vehicle which started with an incredible noise perceived by both father and daughter.

Many years later, German debunkers interrogating his talkative son learned that Oskar Linke never spoke about his experience with friends after having given his sworn testimony to a lawyer and various medias and investigators. No mention of a rich fantasy life was made.

Those interested in the story can take a look at my in-depth analysis.
Or let us consider the now deceased pilot Werner Utter. He had his first flying experience as a teenager. During his whole life he had 29.000 flight hours in 100 prototypes and finally became a member of the presidency of the German Lufthansa, one of the greatest flying companies in the whole world.

Over the course of his rich pilot life, he had experienced three UFOs.

One day a pulsating fireball flew towards his airplane, staid very close to the vehicle before flying away above.

Another time he and his copilots saw an elongated cigar fly past them with an incredible speed.

Finally he sighted a flying saucer sending out red, white and purple beams of light after having been warned by the crew of another plane that a UFO would cross their way.
From all what we know, it seems really unlikely that the two men suffered from the effects of a fantasy-prone personality.

If one of them (whom I picked out among many other trustworthy witnesses) had reported having seen an identifiable military aircraft, nobody could cancel his testimony just by shouting: „Wait, these were probably only hallucinations stemming from his fantasies!“.

No, in the absence of strong contrary evidence this was truly the case, his report would be accepted.

Likewise, I think that no reasonable Skeptic should debunk these astounding cases in such an easy way, even if what they describe sound outlandish.

A rational Skeptic would rather seek for an explanation in terms of non-hallucinatory misconceptions of ordinary objects and phenomena.

If we were to systematically declare witnesses of events we judge to be unlikely as delusional, we would miss a lot of potential new discoveries such as ball lightning.


Majestic ball lightning.

There are real reasons to feel concerned as this is precisely what happened to the witnesses of phenomena we now view as well established such as meteorites or ball lightning.

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