The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1997)

Chapter 6. Hallucinations

[A]s children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so we in the light sometimes fear what is no more to be feared than the things children in the dark hold in terror...

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

(c. 60 BC)

Advertisers must know their audiences. It’s a simple matter of product and corporate survival. So we can learn how commercial, free-enterprise America views UFO buffs by examining the advertisements in magazines devoted to UFOs. Here are some (entirely typical) ad headlines from an issue of UFO Universe:

• Senior Research Scientist Discovers 2,000-Year-Old Secret to Wealth, Power, and Romantic Love.

• Classified! Above Top Secret. The Most Sensational Government Conspiracy of Our Time Is Finally Revealed to the World by a Retired Military Officer.

• What Is Your ‘Special Mission’ While on Earth? The Cosmic Awakening of Light Workers, Walk-Ins, All Star-Born Representatives Has Begun!

• This Is What You Have Been Waiting For. 24 Superb, Incredible Life-Improving UFO Seals of the Spirits.

• I Got a Girl. Do You? Stop Missing Out! Get Girls Now!

• Subscribe Today to the Most Amazing Magazine in the Universe.

• Bring Miraculous Good Luck, Love, and Money into Your Life! These Powers Have Worked for Centuries! They Can Work for You.

• Amazing Psychic Research Breakthrough. It Takes Only 5 Minutes to Prove that Psychic Magic Powers Really Work!

• Have You the Courage to Be Lucky, Loved and Rich? Guaranteed Good Fortune Will Come Your Way! Get Everything You Want with the Most Powerful Talismans in the World.

• Men in Black: Government Agents or Aliens?

• Increase the Power of Gemstones, Charms, Seals and Symbols. Improve the Effectiveness of Everything You Do. Magnify Your Mind Power and Abilities with the Mind Power MAGNIFIER.

• The Famous Money Magnet: Would You Like More Money?

• Testament of Lael, Sacred Scriptures of a Lost Civilization.

• A New Book by ‘Commander X’ from Inner Light: The Controllers, the Hidden Rulers of Earth Identified. We Are the Property of an Alien Intelligence!

What is the common thread that binds these ads together? Not UFOs. Surely it’s the expectation of unlimited audience gullibility. That’s why they’re placed in UFO magazines - because by and large the very act of buying such a magazine so categorizes the reader. Doubtless, there are moderately sceptical and fully rational purchasers of these periodicals who are demeaned by such expectations of advertisers and editors. But if they’re right even about the bulk of their readers, what might it mean for the alien abduction paradigm?

Occasionally, I get a letter from someone who is in ‘contact’ with extraterrestrials. I am invited to ‘ask them anything’. And so over the years I’ve prepared a little list of questions. The extraterrestrials are very advanced, remember. So I ask things like, ‘Please provide a short proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem’. Or the Goldbach Conjecture. And then I have to explain what these are because extraterrestrials will not call it Fermat’s Last

Theorem. So I write out the simple equation with the exponents. I never get an answer. On the other hand, if I ask something like ‘Should we be good?’ I almost always get an answer. Anything vague, especially involving conventional moral judgements, these aliens are extremely happy to respond to. But on anything specific, where there is a chance to find out if they actually know anything beyond what most humans know, there is only silence.* Something can be deduced from this differential ability to answer questions.

[* It’s a stimulating exercise to think of questions to which no human today knows the answers, but where a correct answer would immediately be recognized as such. It’s even more challenging to formulate such questions in fields other than mathematics. Perhaps we should hold a contest and collect the best responses in Ten Questions to Ask an Alien’.]

In the good old days before the alien abduction paradigm, people taken aboard UFOs were offered, so they reported, edifying lectures on the dangers of nuclear war. Nowadays, when such instruction is given, the extraterrestrials seem fixated on environmental degradation and AIDS. How is it, I ask myself, that UFO occupants are so bound to fashionable or urgent concerns on this planet? Why not an incidental warning about CFCs and ozone depletion in the 1950s, or about the HIV virus in the 1970s, when it might really have done some good? Why not alert us now to some public health or environmental threat we haven’t yet figured out? Can it be that aliens know only as much as those who report their presence? And if one of the chief purposes of alien visitations is admonitions about global dangers, why tell it only to a few people whose accounts are suspect anyway? Why not take over the television networks for a night, or appear with vivid cautionary audiovisuals before the United Nations Security Council? Surely this is not too difficult for those who wing across the light years.

The earliest commercially successful UFO ‘contactee’ was George Adamski. He operated a tiny restaurant at the foot of California’s Mount Palomar, and set up a small telescope out back. At the summit of the mountain was the largest telescope on Earth, the 200-inch reflector of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the California Institute of Technology. Adamski styled himself Professor Adamski of Mount Palomar Observatory. He published a book - it caused quite a sensation, I recall - in which he described how in the desert nearby he had encountered nice-looking aliens with long blond hair and, if I remember correctly, white robes who warned Adamski about the dangers of nuclear war. They hailed from the planet Venus (whose 900° Fahrenheit surface temperature we can now recognize as a barrier to Adam-ski’s credibility). In person, he was utterly convincing. The Air Force officer nominally in charge of UFO investigations at the time described Adamski in these words:

To look at the man and to listen to his story you had an immediate urge to believe him. Maybe it was his appearance. He was dressed in well worn, but neat, overalls. He had slightly graying hair and the most honest pair of eyes I’ve ever seen.

Adamski’s star slowly faded as he aged, but he self-published other books and was a long-standing fixture at conventions of flying saucer ‘believers’.

The first alien abduction story in the modern genre was that of Betty and Barney Hill, a New Hampshire couple, she a social worker and he a Post Office employee. During a late-night drive in 1961 through the White Mountains, Betty spotted a bright, initially star-like UFO that seemed to follow them. Because Barney feared it might harm them, they left the main highway for narrow mountain roads, arriving home two hours later than they’d expected. The experience prompted Betty to read a book that described UFOs as spaceships from other worlds; their occupants were little men who sometimes abducted humans.

Soon after, she experienced a terrifying, repetitive nightmare in which she and Barney were abducted and taken aboard the UFO. Barney overheard her describing this dream to friends, co-workers and volunteer UFO investigators. (It’s curious that Betty didn’t discuss it with her husband directly.) By a week or so after the experience, they were describing a ‘pancake’-like UFO with uniformed figures seen through the craft’s transparent windows.

Several years later, Barney’s psychiatrist referred him to a Boston hypnotherapist, Benjamin Simon, MD. Betty came to be hypnotized as well. Under hypnosis they separately filled in details of what had happened during the ‘missing’ two hours: they watched the UFO land on the highway and were taken, partly immobilized, inside the craft where short, grey, humanoid creatures with long noses (a detail discordant with the current paradigm) subjected them to unconventional medical examinations, including a needle in her navel (before amniocentesis had been invented on Earth). There are those who now believe that eggs were taken from Betty’s ovaries and sperm from Barney, although that isn’t part of the original story.* The captain showed Betty a map of interstellar space with the ship’s routes marked.

[* In more recent times, Ms Hill has written that in real abductions, ‘no sexual interest is shown. However, frequently they help themselves to some of [the abductee’s] belongings, such as fishing rods, jewelry of different types, eyeglasses or a cup of laundry soap.’]

Martin S. Kottmeyer has shown that many of the motifs in the Hills’ account can be found in a 1953 motion picture, Invaders from Mars. And Barney’s story of what the aliens looked like, especially their enormous eyes, emerged in a hypnosis session just twelve days after the airing of an episode of the television series The Outer Limits’ in which such an alien was portrayed.

The Hill case was widely discussed. It was made into a 1975 TV movie that introduced the idea that short, grey alien abductors are among us into the psyches of millions of people. But even the few scientists of the time who thought that some UFOs might in fact be alien spaceships were wary. The alleged encounter was conspicuous by its absence from the list of suggestive UFO cases compiled by James E. McDonald, a University of Arizona atmospheric physicist. In general, those scientists who have taken UFOs seriously have tended to keep the alien abduction accounts at arm’s length, while those who take alien abductions at face value see little reason to analyse mere lights in the sky.

McDonald’s view on UFOs was based, he said, not on irrefutable evidence, but was a conclusion of last resort: all the alternative explanations seemed to him even less credible. In the middle 1960s I arranged for McDonald to present his best cases in a private meeting with leading physicists and astronomers who had not before staked a claim on the UFO issue. Not only did he fail to convince them that we were being visited by extraterrestrials; he failed even to excite their interest. And this was a group with a very high wonder quotient. It was simply that where McDonald saw aliens, they saw much more prosaic explanations.

I was glad to have an opportunity to spend several hours with Mr and Mrs Hill and with Dr Simon. There was no mistaking the earnestness and sincerity of Betty and Barney, and their mixed feelings about becoming public figures under such odd and awkward circumstances. With the Hills’ permission, Dr Simon played for me (and, at my invitation, McDonald) some of the audiotapes of their sessions under hypnosis. By far my most striking impression was the absolute terror in Barney’s voice as he described - ‘re-lived’ would be a better word - the encounter.

Dr Simon, while a leading proponent of the virtues of hypnosis in war and peace, had not been caught up in the public frenzy about UFOs. He shared handsomely in the royalties of John Fuller’s best-seller, Interrupted Journey, about the Hills’ experience. If Dr Simon had pronounced their account authentic, the sales of the book might have gone through the roof and his own financial reward been considerably augmented. But he didn’t. He also instantly rejected the notion that they were lying, or as suggested by another psychiatrist, that this was a folie a deux - a shared delusion in which, generally, the submissive partner goes along with the delusion of the dominant partner. So what’s left? The Hills, said their psychotherapist, had experienced a species of ‘dream’. Together.

There may very well be more than one source of alien abduction accounts, just as there are for UFO sigh tings. Let’s run through some of the possibilities.

In 1894 The International Census of Waking Hallucinations was published in London. From that time to this, repeated surveys have shown that 10 to 25 per cent of ordinary, functioning people have experienced, at least once in their lifetimes, a vivid hallucination, hearing a voice, usually, or seeing a form when there’s no one there. More rarely, people sense a haunting aroma, or hear music, or receive a revelation that arrives independent of the senses. In some cases these become transforming personal events or profound religious experiences. Hallucinations may be a neglected low door in the wall to a scientific understanding of the sacred.

Probably a dozen times since their deaths I’ve heard my mother or father, in a conversational tone of voice, call my name. Of course they called to me often during my life with them – to do a chore, to remind me of a responsibility, to come to dinner, to engage in conversation, to hear about an event of the day. I still miss them so much that it doesn’t seem at all strange that my brain will occasionally retrieve a lucid recollection of their voices.

Such hallucinations may occur to perfectly normal people under perfectly ordinary circumstances. Hallucinations can also be elicited: by a campfire at night, or under emotional stress, or during epileptic seizures or migraine headaches or high fever, or by prolonged fasting or sleeplessness* or sensory deprivation (for example, in solitary confinement), or through hallucinogens such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, or hashish. (Delirium tremens, the dreaded alcohol-induced DTs, is one well-known manifestation of a withdrawal syndrome from alcoholism.) There are also molecules, such as the phenothiazines (thorazine, for example), that make hallucinations go away. It is very likely that the normal human body generates substances – perhaps including the morphine-like small brain proteins called endorphins – that cause hallucinations, and others that suppress them. Such celebrated (and unhysterical) explorers as Admiral Richard Byrd, Captain Joshua Slocum and Sir Ernest Shackleton all experienced vivid hallucinations when coping with unusual isolation and loneliness.

[* Dreams are associated with a state called REM sleep, the abbreviation standing for rapid eye movement. (Under the closed eyelids the eyes move, perhaps following the action in the dream, or perhaps randomly.) The REM state is strongly correlated with sexual arousal. Experiments have been performed in which sleeping subjects are awakened whenever the REM state emerges, while members of a control group are awakened just as often each night but not when they’re dreaming. After some days, the control group is a little groggy, but the experimental group – the ones who are prevented from dreaming – is hallucinating in daytime. It’s not that a few people with a particular abnormality can be made to hallucinate in this way; anyone is capable of hallucinations.]

Whatever their neurological and molecular antecedents, hallucinations feel real. They are sought out in many cultures and considered a sign of spiritual enlightenment. Among the Native Americans of the Western Plains, for example, or many indigenous Siberian cultures, a young man’s future was foreshadowed by the nature of the hallucination he experienced after a successful ‘vision quest’; its meaning was discussed with great seriousness among the elders and shamans of the tribe. There are countless instances in the world’s religions where patriarchs, prophets or saviours repair themselves to desert or mountain and, assisted by hunger and sensory deprivation, encounter gods or demons. Psychedelic-induced religious experiences were a hallmark of the western youth culture of the 1960s. The experience, however brought about, is often described respectfully by words such as ‘transcendent’, ‘numinous’, ‘sacred’ and ‘holy’.

Hallucinations are common. If you have one, it doesn’t mean you’re crazy. The anthropological literature is replete with hallucination ethnopsychiatry, REM dreams and possession trances, which have many common elements transculturally and across the ages. The hallucinations are routinely interpreted as possession by good or evil spirits. The Yale anthropologist Weston La Barre goes so far as to argue that ‘a surprisingly good case could be made that much of culture is hallucination’ and that ‘the whole intent and function of ritual appears to be ... [a] group wish to hallucinate reality’.

Here is a description of hallucinations as a signal-to-noise problem by Louis J. West, former medical director of the Neu-ropsychiatric Clinic at the University of California, Los Angeles. It is taken from the fifteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

[I]magine a man standing at a closed glass window opposite his fireplace, looking out at his garden in the sunset. He is so absorbed by the view of the outside world that he fails to visualize the interior of the room at all. As it becomes darker outside, however, images of the objects in the room behind him can be seen reflected dimly in the window glass. For a time he may see either the garden (if he gazes into the distance) or the reflection of the room’s interior (if he focuses on the glass a few inches from his face). Night falls, but the fire still burns brightly in the fireplace and illuminates the room. The watcher now sees in the glass a vivid reflection of the interior of the room behind him, which appears to be outside the window. This illusion becomes dimmer as the fire dies down, and, finally, when it is dark both outside and within, nothing more is seen. If the fire flares up from time to time, the visions in the glass reappear.

In an analogous way, hallucinatory experiences such as those of normal dreams occur when the ‘daylight’ (sensory input) is reduced while the ‘interior illumination’ (general level of brain arousal) remains ‘bright’, and images originating within the ‘rooms’ of our brains may be perceived (hallucinated) as though they came from outside the ‘windows’ of our senses.

Another analogy might be that dreams, like the stars, are shining all the time. Though the stars are not often seen by day, since the sun shines too brightly, if, during the day, there is an eclipse of the sun, or if a viewer chooses to be watchful awhile after sunset or awhile before sunrise, or if he is awakened from time to time on a clear night to look at the sky, then the stars, like dreams, though often forgotten, may always be seen.

A more brain-related concept is that of a continuous information-processing activity (a kind of ‘preconscious stream’) that is influenced continually by both conscious and unconscious forces and that constitutes the potential supply of dream content. The dream is an experience during which, for a few minutes, the individual has some awareness of the stream of data being processed. Hallucinations in the waking state also would involve the same phenomenon, produced by a somewhat different set of psychological or physiological circumstances...

It appears that all human behaviour and experience (normal as well as abnormal) is well attended by illusory and hallucinatory phenomena. While the relationship of these phenomena to mental illness has been well documented, their role in everyday life has perhaps not been considered enough. Greater understanding of illusions and hallucinations among normal people may provide explanations for experiences otherwise relegated to the uncanny, ‘extrasensory’, or supernatural.

We would surely be missing something important about our own nature if we refused to face up to the fact that hallucinations are part of being human. However, none of this makes hallucinations part of an external rather than an internal reality. Five to ten per cent of us are extremely suggestible, able to move at a command into a deep hypnotic trance. Roughly ten per cent of Americans report having seen one or more ghosts. This is more than the number who allegedly remember being abducted by aliens, about the same as the number who’ve reported seeing one or more UFOs, and less than the number who in the last week of Richard Nixon’s Presidency, before he resigned to avoid impeachment, thought he was doing a good-to-excellent job as President. At least one per cent of all of us is schizophrenic. This amounts to over 50 million schizophrenics on the planet, more than the population of, say, England.

In his 1970 book on nightmares, the psychiatrist John Mack -about whom I will have more to say - writes:

There is a period in early childhood in which dreams are regarded as real and in which the events, transformations, gratifications, and threats of which they are composed are regarded by the child as if they were as much a part of his actual daily life as his daytime experiences. The capacity to establish and maintain clear distinctions between the life of dreams and life in the outside world is hard-won and requires several years to accomplish, not being completed even in normal children before ages eight to ten. Nightmares, \ because of their vividness and compelling effective intensity, are particularly difficult for the child to judge realistically.

When a child tells a fabulous story - a witch was grimacing in the darkened room; a tiger is lurking under the bed; the vase was broken by a multi-coloured bird that flew in the window and not because, contrary to family rules, a football was being kicked inside the house - is he or she consciously lying? Surely parents often act as if the child cannot fully distinguish between fantasy and reality. Some children have active imaginations; others are less well endowed in this department. Some families may respect the ability to fantasize and encourage the child, while at the same time saying something like ‘Oh, that’s not real; that’s just your imagination.’ Other families may be impatient about confabulating - it makes running the household and adjudicating disputes at least marginally more difficult - and discourage their children from fantasizing, perhaps even teaching them to think it’s something shameful. A few parents may be unclear about the distinction between reality and fantasy themselves, or may even seriously enter into the fantasy. Out of all these contending propensities and child-rearing practices, some people emerge with an intact ability to fantasize, and a history, extending well into adulthood, of confabulation. Others grow up believing that anyone who doesn’t know the difference between reality and fantasy is crazy. Most of us are somewhere in between.

Abductees frequently report having seen ‘aliens’ in their childhood - coming in through the window or from under the bed or out of the closet. But everywhere in the world children report similar stories, with fairies, elves, brownies, ghosts, goblins, witches, imps and a rich variety of imaginary ‘friends’. Are we to imagine two different groups of children, one that sees imaginary earthly beings and the other that sees genuine extraterrestrials? Isn’t it more reasonable that both groups are seeing, or hallucinating, the same thing?

Most of us recall being frightened at the age of two and older by real-seeming but wholly imaginary ‘monsters’, especially at night or in the dark. I can still remember occasions when I was absolutely terrified, hiding under the bedclothes until I could stand it no longer, and then bolting for the safety of my parents’ bedroom - if only I could get there before falling into the clutches of ... The Presence. The American cartoonist Gary Larson who draws in the horror genre dedicates one of his books as follows:

When I was a boy, our house was filled with monsters. They lived in the closets, under the beds, in the attic, in the basement, and - when it was dark - just about everywhere. This book is dedicated to my father, who kept me safe from all of them.

Maybe the abduction therapists should be doing more of that.

Part of the reason that children are afraid of the dark may be that, in our entire evolutionary history up until just a moment ago, they never slept alone. Instead, they nestled safely, protected by an adult, usually Mum. In the enlightened west we stick them alone in a dark room, say goodnight, and have difficulty understanding why they’re sometimes upset. It makes good evolutionary sense for children to have fantasies of scary monsters. In a world stalked by lions and hyenas, such fantasies help prevent defenceless toddlers from wandering too far from their guardians. How can this safety machinery be effective for a vigorous, curious young animal unless it delivers industrial strength terror? Those who are not afraid of monsters tend not to leave descendants. Eventually, I imagine, over the course of human evolution, almost all children become afraid of monsters. But if we’re capable of conjuring up terrifying monsters in childhood, why shouldn’t some of us, at least on occasion, be able to fantasize something similar, something truly horrifying, a shared delusion, as adults?

It is telling that alien abductions occur mainly on falling asleep or when waking up, or on long automobile drives where there is a well-known danger of falling into some autohypnotic reverie. Abduction therapists are puzzled when their patients describe crying out in terror while their spouses sleep leadenly beside them. But isn’t this typical of dreams, our shouts for help unheard? Might these stories have something to do with sleep and, as Benjamin Simon proposed for the Hills, a kind of dream?

A common, although insufficiently well-known, psychological syndrome rather like alien abduction is called sleep paralysis. Many people experience it. It happens in that twilight world between being fully awake and fully asleep. For a few minutes, maybe longer, you’re immobile and acutely anxious. You feel a weight on your chest as if some being is sitting or lying there. Your heartbeat is quick, your breathing laboured. You may experience auditory or visual hallucinations of people, demons, ghosts, animals or birds. In the right setting, the experience can have ‘the full force and impact of reality’, according to Robert Baker, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky. Sometimes there’s a marked sexual component to the hallucination. Baker argues that these common sleep disturbances are behind many if not most of the alien abduction accounts. (He and others suggest that there are other classes of abduction claims as well, made by fantasy-prone individuals, say, or hoaxers.)

Similarly, the Harvard Mental Health Letter (September 1994) comments,

Sleep paralysis may last for several minutes, and is sometimes accompanied by vivid dreamlike hallucinations that give rise to stories about visitations from gods, spirits, and extraterrestrial creatures.

We know from early work of the Canadian neurophysiologist Wilder Penfield that electrical stimulation of certain regions of the brain elicits full-blown hallucinations. People with temporal lobe epilepsy - involving a cascade of naturally generated electrical impulses in the part of the brain beneath the forehead - experience a range of hallucinations almost indistinguishable from reality: including the presence of one or more strange beings, anxiety, floating through the air, sexual experiences, and a sense of missing time. There is also what feels like profound insight into the deepest questions and a need to spread the word. A continuum of spontaneous temporal lobe stimulation seems to stretch from people with serious epilepsy to the most average among us. In at least one case reported by another Canadian neuroscientist, Michael Persinger, administration of the antiepileptic drug, carbamazepine, eliminated a woman’s recurring sense of experiencing the standard alien abduction scenario. So such hallucinations, generated spontaneously, or with chemical or experiential assists, may play a role, perhaps a central role, in the UFO accounts.

But such a view is easy to burlesque: UFOs explained away as ‘mass hallucinations’. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as a shared hallucination. Right?

As the possibility of extraterrestrial life began to be widely popularized - especially around the turn of the last century by Percival Lowell with his Martian canals - people began to report contact with aliens, mainly Martians. The psychologist Theodore Flournoy’s 1901 book, From India to the Planet Mars, describes a French-speaking medium who in a trance state drew pictures of the Martians (they look just like us) and presented their alphabet and language (remarkably like French). The psychiatrist Carl Jung in his 1902 doctoral dissertation described a young Swiss woman who was agitated to discover, sitting across from her on the train, a ‘star-dweller’ from Mars. Martians are innocent of science, philosophy and souls, she was told, but have advanced technology. ‘Flying machines have long been in existence on Mars; the whole of Mars is covered with canals’ and so on. Charles Fort, a collector of anomalous reports who died in 1932, wrote, ‘Perhaps there are inhabitants of Mars, who are secretly sending reports upon the ways of this world to their governments.’ In the 1950s there was a book by Gerald Heard that revealed the saucer occupants to be intelligent Martian bees. Who else could survive the fantastic right angle turns reported for UFOs?

But after the canals were shown to be illusory by Mariner 9 in 1971, and after no compelling evidence even for microbes was found on Mars by Vikings 1 and 2 in 1976, popular enthusiasm for the Lowellian Mars waned and we heard little about visiting Martians. Aliens were then reported to come from somewhere else. Why? Why no more Martians? And after the surface of Venus was found to be hot enough to melt lead, there were no more visiting Venusians. Does some part of these stories adjust to the current canons of belief? What does that imply about their origin?

There’s no doubt that humans commonly hallucinate. There’s considerable doubt about whether extraterrestrials exist, frequent our planet, or abduct and molest us. We might argue about details, but the one category of explanation is surely much better supported than the other. The main reservation you might then have is: why do so many people today report this particular set of hallucinations? Why sombre little beings, and flying saucers, and sexual experimentation?