Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Out-of-body experiences and alien abductions

In her novel Passage, Connie Willis depicts two doctors, both researchers in neuropsychology, who attempt to alter the brain chemistry in their subjects to simulate the sensations of a person having a near-death experience.  One of her main characters, the project leader Dr. Richard Wright, speculates that there is a chemical reason for commonality of images, sounds, and so on that occur in near-death experiences -- that they are caused by a neurotransmitter cascade, the brain's last, desperate attempt to send an SOS.  These sensations don't reflect any external reality, but are simply the sensations activated by a last-ditch effort for survival.

While such a study is still in the realm of fiction, now we have news that an analogous one may have shown a similar conclusion for out-of-body experiences.

Michael Raduga, an experimenter at UCLA, became interested in the whole phenomenon of out-of-body experiences as they connect with individuals who have reported being abducted by aliens.  After interviewing a number of "abduction survivors," he began to wonder if he could induce the same sensations in an ordinary person.  So he has developed a technique (detailed in his book The School of Out-of-Body Travel, downloadable here) by which he claims that 90% of people can achieve an out-of-body experience in two weeks.  (I downloaded it, of course -- and it seems like it requires little more than a disruption of the normal sleep cycle, followed by a series of visualization exercises.)

When he used these techniques with twenty volunteers, he found that seven of them had out-of-body experiences, and a number of them reported contact with alien beings.  That this differs from the 90% success rate he reports in his book he explains by stating that a number of the test subjects were about to have an out-of-body experience, but snapped back to normal consciousness because of "extreme fear."

Here is just one account, from test subject "Alexander N."  (You can read several others on his press release, here.)
I got up from my body in my own room. However, my physical body was no longer to be found in my bed. I tried to employ “deepening” and scrutinized everything around. I lost my bearing and everything naturally became somewhat awkward.

Not wanting to waste any more time, I tried to find aliens. Three of them materialized right before my eyes. They seemed more like creatures from the movie “The Thing” than tadpoles with eyes like Princess Jasmine. They wanted to scare me, not to “make contact”. As a result, I was extremely frightened and regained awareness in my own body.
Despite some inconsistencies, and the inevitable subjectivity of results that rely entirely on the accounts of the subjects themselves, I think that Raduga draws exactly the right conclusion from this research:
The fact that UFOs and extraterrestrials may be deliberately encountered in a controlled manner and within a few days proves that such experiences are a product of the human brain. It was the first experiment to ever prove that close encounters with UFOs and extraterrestrials are a product of the human mind. The experiment also demonstrated that alien contact is not indicative of the existence of otherworldly civilizations, but rather of a poorly studied state of consciousness that people occasionally fall into inadvertently.
All of this brings up a point I've made more than once; that skeptics demand hard evidence in cases of alleged paranormal experiences not because they're obnoxious cranks, but because they are all too aware of the potential for the human mind to be fooled.  I've never said that aliens, ghosts, Bigfoot, El Chupacabra, and the rest are impossible; merely that in order to believe in any of them, I need more than "My Uncle Fred says he saw one."  Much as I like to think I'm a pretty good observer, I wouldn't even trust my own experiences without any kind of corroborative evidence -- especially if they occurred, as most out-of-body experiences do, when I was half asleep.

So, anyway, that seems to be at least a first step toward explaining what's happening when people think they've been abducted.  It'd be nice to have some test subjects induce out-of-body experiences while lying inside a PET scanner -- similar to what Dr. Wright's NDE simulators did in Passage.  This might elucidate what is actually happening in the brain during an out-of-body episode -- although it would still leave unexplained why anyone would see "alien tadpoles with Princess Jasmine eyes."


  1. It sounds like a good study, but I think the conclusion is worded too strongly. That it's easy for regular people to hallucinate aliens, doesn't prove that there are not also actual aliens hanging around our planet.

  2. Tyler, please finish reading the article! "I've never said that aliens, ghosts, Bigfoot, El Chupacabra, and the rest are impossible; merely that in order to believe in any of them, I need more than 'My Uncle Fred says he saw one.'"