Was this UFO just another hallucination?

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Deutsche Version:  War dieses UFO bloss eine andere dieser Halluzinationen?

In another post I pointed out that the easiest way to systematically explain away sightings of weird phenomena consists of merely asserting that the witnesses have experienced long-lived and complex hallucinations.

A French peasant faces a UFO surrounded by two weird creatures.

(Close UFO Encounter of Valensole in Southern French Provence)


Besides fantasy-prone personality, another explanation consists of the hypothesis that people witnessing UFOs are actually experiencing hallucinations spawned by magnetic fields which appear very real to them.

Interestingly, this speculative approach isn’t only applied to putative extraterrestrial apparitions but also to poorly understood phenomena, thereby denying their physical reality.

The mysterious ball lightings represent a good example.

Strange white ball lightning hovering over a street.

Ball lightning

Some scientists suppose that they don’t exist at all and that all reports about them stem from hallucinations produced by magnetic fields.

However this theoretical explanation is sharply criticized by other scholars.

„Ball lightnings have killed humans, how could this have come about through an electromagnetic hallucination?“  psychologist and meteorologist Alexender Keil opines in APA-dialog.

No proofs

„Roughly half of all ball lightnings could be explained through luminous phenomena called Phosphene“ think physicists Alexender Kendl and Josef Peer. 

Magnetic fields of thunderstorm lightings which discharge themselves several times should act precisely like the artificial magnetic fields of transcranial magnetic simulation (TMS) which stimulate nerves in the brain and trigger electromagnetic hallucinations

This hypothesis, which, according to Keul, was already formulated by Englishman Mark Stenhoff in 1999, sounds elegant and illuminating but has never been verified experimentally, Keul and neuroscientist Paul Sauseng criticize.

 Sauseng also points out that delusional perceptions during artificial brain stimulations last at most one second whereas ball lightnings exist on average for 5 seconds.

Moreover, hallucinations through artificial stimulations would only occur if there were strong magnetic field differences of several centimeters in the brain, which is incredibly unlikely to happen during close lightning impacts.

 „Since the brain surface of every human has different folds, two persons undergoing simultaneously ball lightning hallucinations should see completely different things, which isn’t by any means what is reported.“ says neuroscientist Sauseng.

Many unverified theories

Keul emphasizes that ball lightnings can also cause damages or get photographed, what both physicists leave wholly unconsidered in their neurological explanation. And in the clinical literature about lightning and electricity accidents one can find absolutely nothing about the alleged hallucinations.

 If pilots during thunderstorms were really at risk of undergoing hallucinations, there would not only be flight prohibitions during the presence of vulcanic ashes. And routine investigations of brains under the strong fields of magnetic resonant tomography (MRT) would be an extremely wild undertaking, indeed.“

According to ball-lightning researcher Keul, enough theories about the phenomenon have been developed but there are too few empirical tests and inter-disciplinary cooperations.

Very recently Chinese scientists could prove the presence of ball lightning during a thunderstorm, which strongly indicates that most observers have reported a real phenomenon.

The ball lightning is preceded by a white tail liting up the sky.

Impressive ball lightning

The delusion hypothesis appears now to lie on very shaky grounds.
It is noteworthy that this „theory“ strongly resembles the entirely unproven hypothesis according to which sightings of unidentified triangular flying objects stem from hallucinations induced by plasma.

Triangular military aircraft flying across a blue sky.

B2 bomber.

(Not long ago, the American B2-bomber would have been simply written off as the delusion of an agitated brain).

The ethics of skepticism

In 1877, Skeptical British philosopher William K. Clifford wrote an essay entitled „the ethics of belief“ in which he argues that „It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.“

While I take such crass generalizations with a grain of salt, I agree, of course, that the acceptance of unsupported opinions can trigger all sort of unpleasant consequences.


But the flip side of the coin is that the pseudo-skeptical rejection of still unexplained phenomena for which we have normal evidence can be equally devastating for our collective knowledge and our global progress.

Besides ball lightnings one can also mention continental drift as well as meteorites whose existence have been denied during a long period of time, despite trustworthy testimonies or clues, because one had no explanation for them.

Another moral problem is that the conviction of debunkers that something doesn’t exist does not rarely lead them to accuse decent persons of having set up extraordinary hoaxes (see here for a good example).
Therefore it is fair enough to demand Skeptics to provide us with compelling grounds as to why a given phenomenon should be seen as extremely improbable a-priori. As I argued, the burden of proof isn’t unidirectional.

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