New Scientist, 19 November 1994, 29-31
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.
Researchers don’t 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 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 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 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 sneezed out?
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 sometime about the way the mind works?
The fundamental 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.
Things are 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 “real”.
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.
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 perceived 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 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 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 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 seismic event.
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 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 imaginary aliens.