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

Chapter 8. On the Distinction between True and False Visions

A credulous mind... finds most delight in believing strange things, and the stranger they are the easier they pass with him; but never regards those that are plain and feasible, for every man can believe such.

Samuel Butler, Characters (1667-9)

For just an instant in the darkened room I sense an apparition -ould it be a ghost? Or there’s a flicker of motion; I see it out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn my head there’s nothing there. Is that a telephone ringing, or is it just my ‘imagination’? In astonishment, I seem to be smelling the salt air of the Coney Island summer seashore of my childhood. I turn a corner in the foreign city I’m visiting for the first time, and before me is a street so familiar I feel I’ve known it all my life.

In these commonplace experiences, we’re generally unsure what to do next. Were my eyes (or ears, or nose, or memory) playing ‘tricks’ on me? Or did I really and truly witness something out of the ordinary course of Nature? Shall I keep quiet about it, or shall I tell?

The answer depends very much on my environment, friends, loved ones and culture. In an obsessively rigid, practically oriented society, perhaps I would be cautious about admitting to such experiences. They might mark me as flighty, unsound, unreliable. But in a society that readily believes in ghosts, say, or ‘apporting’, accounts of such experiences might gain approval, even prestige. In the former, I would be sorely tempted to suppress the thing altogether; in the latter, maybe even to exaggerate or elaborate just a little to make it even more miraculous than it seemed.

Charles Dickens, who lived in a flourishing rational culture in which, however, spiritualism was also thriving, described the dilemma in these words (from his short story, ‘To Be Taken with a Grain of Salt’):

I have always noticed a prevalent want of courage, even among persons of superior intelligence and culture, as to imparting their own psychological experiences when those have been of a strange sort. Almost all men are afraid that what they could relate in such wise would find no parallel or response in a listener’s internal life, and might be suspected or laughed at. A truthful traveller who should have seen some extraordinary creature in the likeness of a sea-serpent, would have no fear of mentioning it; but the same traveller having had some singular presentiment, impulse, vagary of thought, vision (so-called), dream, or other remarkable mental impression, would hesitate considerably before he would own to it. To his reticence I attribute much of the obscurity in which such subjects are involved.

In our time, there is still much dismissive chortling and ridicule. But the reticence and obscurity is more readily overcome, for example, in a ‘supportive’ setting provided by a therapist or hypnotist. Unfortunately - and, for some people, unbelievably -the distinction between imagination and memory is often blurred. Some ‘abductees’ say they remember the experience without hypnosis; many do not. But hypnosis is an unreliable way to refresh memory. It often elicits imagination, fantasy and play as well as true recollections, with neither patient nor therapist able to distinguish the one from the other. Hypnosis seems to involve, in a central way, a state of heightened suggestibility. Courts have banned its use as evidence or even as a tool of criminal investigation. The American Medical Association calls memories surfacing under hypnosis less reliable than those recalled without it. A standard medical school text (Harold I. Kaplan, Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 1989) warns of ‘a high likelihood that the beliefs of the hypnotist will be communicated to the patient and incorporated into what the patient believes to be memories, often with strong conviction’. So the fact that, when hypnotized, people sometimes relate alien abduction stories carries little weight. There’s a danger that subjects are - at least on some matters - so eager to please the hypnotist that they sometimes respond to subtle cues of which even the hypnotist is unaware.

In a study by Alvin Lawson of California State University, Long Beach, eight subjects, pre-screened to eliminate UFO buffs, were hypnotized by a physician and informed that they had been abducted, brought to a spaceship and examined. With no further prompting, they were asked to describe the experience. Their accounts, most of which were easily elicited, were almost indistinguishable from the accounts that self-described abductees present. True, Lawson had cued his subjects briefly and directly, but in many cases the therapists who routinely deal with alien abductions cue their subjects, some in great detail, others more subtly and indirectly.

The psychiatrist George Ganaway (as related by Lawrence Wright) once proposed to a highly suggestible patient under hypnosis that five hours were missing from her memory of a certain day. When he mentioned a bright light overhead, she promptly told him about UFOs and aliens. When he insisted she had been experimented on, a detailed abduction story emerged. But when she came out of the trance, and examined a video of the session, she recognized that something like a dream had been caught surfacing. Over the next year, though, she repeatedly flashed back to the dream material.

The University of Washington psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has found that unhypnotized subjects can easily be made to believe they saw something they didn’t. In a typical experiment, subjects will view a film of a car accident. In the course of being questioned about what they saw, they’re casually given false information. For example, a stop sign is off-handedly referred to, although there wasn’t one in the film. Many subjects then dutifully recall seeing a stop sign. When the deception is revealed, some vehemently protest, stressing how vividly they remember the sign. The greater the time lag between viewing the film and being given the false information, the more people allow their memories to be tampered with. Loftus argues that ‘memories of an event more closely resemble a story undergoing constant revision than a packet of pristine information’.

There are many other examples, some - a spurious memory of being lost as a child in a shopping mall, for instance - of greater emotional impact. Once the key idea is suggested, the patient often plausibly fleshes out the supporting details. Lucid but wholly false recollections can easily be induced by a few cues and questions, especially in the therapeutic setting. Memory can be contaminated. False memories can be implanted even in minds that do not consider themselves vulnerable and uncritical.

Stephen Ceci of Cornell University, Loftus and their colleagues have found, unsurprisingly, that preschoolers are exceptionally vulnerable to suggestion. The child who, when first asked, correctly denies having caught his hand in a mousetrap later remembers the event in vivid, self-generated detail. When more directly told about ‘some things that happened to you when you were little’, over time they easily enough assent to the implanted memories. Professionals watching videotapes of the children can do no better than chance in distinguishing false memories from true ones. Is there any reason to think that adults are wholly immune to the fallibilities exhibited by children?

President Ronald Reagan, who spent World War Two in Hollywood, vividly described his own role in liberating Nazi concentration camp victims. Living in the film world, he apparently confused a movie he had seen with a reality he had not. On many occasions in his Presidential campaigns, Mr Reagan told an epic story of World War Two courage and sacrifice, an inspiration for all of us. Only it never happened; it was the plot of the movie A Wing and a Prayer - that made quite an impression on me, too, when I saw it at age 9. Many other instances of this sort can be found in Reagan’s public statements. It is not hard to imagine serious public dangers emerging out of instances in which political, military, scientific or religious leaders are unable to distinguish fact from vivid fiction.

In preparing for courtroom testimony, witnesses are coached by their lawyers. Often, they are made to repeat the story over and over again, until they get it ‘right’. Then, on the stand what they remember is the story they’ve been telling in the lawyer’s office. The nuances have been shaded. Or it may no longer correspond, even in its major features, to what really happened. Conveniently, the witnesses may have forgotten that their memories were reprocessed.

These facts are relevant in evaluating the societal effects of advertising and of national propaganda. But here they suggest that on alien abduction matters - where interviews typically take place years after the alleged event - therapists must be very careful that they do not accidentally implant or select the stories they elicit.

Perhaps what we actually remember is a set of memory fragments stitched on to a fabric of our own devising. If we sew cleverly enough, we have made ourselves a memorable story easy to recall. Fragments by themselves, unencumbered by association, are harder to retrieve. The situation is rather like the method of science itself where many isolated data points can be remembered, summarized and explained in the framework of a theory. We then much more easily recall the theory and not the data.

In science the theories are always being reassessed and confronted with new facts; if the facts are seriously discordant -beyond the error bars - the theory may have to be revised. But in everyday life it is very rare that we are confronted with new facts about events of long ago. Our memories are almost never challenged. They can, instead, be frozen in place, no matter how flawed they are, or become a work in continual artistic revision.

More than gods and demons, the best-attested apparitions are those of saints, especially the Virgin Mary in Western Europe from late medieval to modern times. While alien abduction stories have much more the flavour of profane, demonic apparitions, insight into the UFO myth can also be gained from visions described as sacred. Perhaps best known are those of Jeanne d’Arc in France, St Bridget in Sweden, and Girolamo Savonarola in Italy. But more appropriate for our purpose are the apparitions seen by shepherds and peasants and children. In a world plagued by uncertainty and horror, these people longed for contact with the divine. A detailed record of such events in Castile and Catalonia is provided by William A. Christian Jr in his book Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain (1981).

In a typical case, a rural woman or child reports encountering a girl or an oddly tiny woman - perhaps three or four feet tall -who reveals herself to be the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. She requests the awestruck witness to go to the village fathers or the local Church authorities and order them to say prayers for the dead, or obey the Commandments, or build a shrine at this very spot in the countryside. If they do not comply, dire penalties are threatened, perhaps the plague. Alternatively, in plague-infested times, Mary promises to cure the disease but only if her request is satisfied.

The witness tries to do as she is told. But when she informs her father or husband or priest, she is ordered to repeat the story to no one; it is mere female foolishness or frivolity or demonic hallucination. So she keeps quiet. Days later she is confronted again by Mary, a little put out that her request has not been honoured.

‘They will not believe me,’ the witness complains. ‘Give me a sign.’ Evidence is needed.

So Mary - who seems to have had no foreknowledge that evidence would have to be provided - provides a sign. The villagers and priests are promptly convinced. The shrine is built. Miraculous cures occur in its vicinity. Pilgrims come from far and wide. Priests are busy. The economy of the region booms. The original witness is appointed keeper of the sacred shrine.

In most of the cases we know of, there was a commission of inquiry, comprising leaders civic and ecclesiastic, who attested to the genuineness of the apparition, despite initial, almost exclusively male, scepticism. But the standards of evidence were not generally high. In one case the testimony of a delirious eight-year-old boy, taken two days before his death from plague, was soberly accepted. Some of these commissions deliberated decades or even a century after the event.

In On the Distinction between True and False Visions, an expert on the subject, Jean Gerson, in around 1400, summarized the criteria for recognizing a credible witness of an apparition: one was the willingness to accept advice from the political and religious hierarchy. Thus anyone seeing a vision disturbing to those in power was ipso facto an unreliable witness, and saints and virgins could be made to say whatever the authorities wanted to hear.

The ‘signs’ allegedly provided by Mary, the evidence offered and considered compelling, included an ordinary candle, a piece of silk, and a magnetic stone; a piece of coloured tile; footprints; the witness’s unusually quick gathering of thistles; a simple wooden cross inserted in the ground; welts and wounds on the witness; and a variety of contortions - a 12-year-old with her hand held funny, or legs folded back, or a closed mouth making her temporarily mute - that are ‘cured’ the moment her story is accepted.

In some cases accounts may have been compared and coordinated before testimony was given. For example, multiple witnesses in a small town might tell of a tall, glowing woman dressed all in white carrying an infant son and surrounded by a radiance that lit up the street the previous night. But in other cases, people standing directly beside the witness could see nothing, as in this report of a 1617 apparition from Castile:

‘Aye, Bartolome, the lady who came to me these past days is coming through the meadow, and she is kneeling and embracing the cross there - look at her, look at her!’ The youth though he looked as hard as he could saw nothing except some small birds flying around above the cross.

Possiole motives for inventing and accepting such stories are not hard to find: jobs for priests, notaries, carpenters and merchants, and other boosts to the original economy in a time of depression; augmented social status of the witness and her family; prayers once again offered for relatives buried in graveyards later abandoned because of plague, drought and war; rousing public spirit against enemies, especially Moors;

improving civility and obedience to canon law; and confirming the faith of the pious. The fervour of pilgrims in such shrines was impressive; it was not uncommon for rock scrapings or dirt from the shrine to be mixed with water and drunk as medicine. But I’m not suggesting that most witnesses made the whole business up. Something else was going on.

Almost all the urgent requests by Mary were remarkable for their prosaicness - for example, in this 1483 apparition from Catalonia:

I charge you by your soul to charge the souls of the men of the parishes of El Torn, Milleras, El Salent, and Sant Miquel de Campmaior to charge the souls of the priests to ask the people to pay up the tithes and all the duties of the church and restore other things that they hold covertly or openly which are not theirs to their rightful owners within thirty days, for it will be necessary, and observe well the holy Sunday.

And second that they should cease and desist from blaspheming and they should pay the usual charitas mandated by their dead ancestors.

Often the apparition is seen just after the witness awakes. Francisca la Brava testified in 1523 that she had gotten out of bed ‘without knowing if she was in control of her senses’, although in later testimony she claimed to be fully awake. (This was in response to a question which allowed a gradation of possibilities: fully awake, dozing, in a trance, asleep.) Sometimes details are wholly missing, such as what the accompanying angels looked like; or Mary is described as both tall and short, both mother and child, characteristics that unmistakably suggest themselves as dream material. In the Dialogue on Miracles written around 1223 by Caesarius of Heisterbach, clerical visions of the Virgin Mary often occurred during matins, which took place at the sleepy midnight hour.

It is natural to suspect that many, perhaps all, of these apparitions were a species of dream, waking or sleeping, compounded by hoaxes (and by forgeries; there was a thriving business in contrived miracles: religious paintings and statues dug up by accident or divine command). The matter was addressed in the Siete Partidas, the codex of canon and civil law compiled under the direction of Alfonso the Wise, king of Castile, around 1248. In it we can read the following:

Some men fraudulently discover or build altars in fields or in towns, saying that there are relics of certain saints in those places and pretending that they perform miracles, and, for this reason, people from many places are induced to go there as on a pilgrimage, in order to take something away from them; and there are others who influenced by dreams or empty phantoms which appear to them, erect altars and pretend to discover them in the above named localities.

In listing the reasons for erroneous beliefs, Alfonso lays out a continuum from sect, opinion, fantasy and dream to hallucination. A kind of fantasy named antoian$a is defined as follows:

Antoianca is something that stops before the eyes and then disappears, as one sees or hears it in a trance, and so is without substance.

A 1517 papal bull distinguishes between apparitions that appear ‘in dreams or divinely’. Clearly, the secular and ecclesiastical authorities, even in times of extreme credulity, were alert to the possibilities of hoax and delusion.

Nevertheless, in most of medieval Europe, such apparitions were greeted warmly by the Roman Catholic clergy, especially because the Marian admonitions were so congenial to the priesthood. A pathetic few ‘signs’ of evidence - a stone or a footprint and never anything unfakeable - sufficed. But beginning in the fifteenth century, around the time of the Protestant Reformation, the attitude of the Church changed. Those who reported an independent channel to Heaven were outflanking the Church’s chain of command up to God. Moreover, a few of the apparitions - Jeanne d’Arc’s, for example - had awkward political or moral implications. The perils represented by Jeanne d’Arc’s visions were described by her inquisitors in 1431 in these words:

The great danger was shown to her that comes of someone so presumptuous to believe they have such apparitions and revelations, and therefore lie about matters concerning God, giving out false prophecies and divinations not known from God, but invented. From which could follow the seduction of peoples, the inception of new sects, and many other impieties that subvert the Church and Catholics.

Both Jeanne d’Arc and Girolamo Savonarola were burned at the stake for their visions.

In 1516 the Fifth Lateran Council reserved to ‘the Apostolic seat’ the right to examine the authenticity of apparitions. For poor peasants whose visions had no political content, the punishments fell short of the ultimate severity. The Marian apparition seen by Francisca la Brava, a young mother, was described by Licenciado Mariana, the Lord Inquisitor, as ‘to the detriment of our holy Catholic faith and the diminution of its authority’. Her apparition ‘was all vanity and frivolity’. ‘By rights we could have treated her more rigorously’, the Inquisitor continued.

But in deference to certain just reasons that move us to mitigate the rigour of the sentences we decree as a punishment to Francisca la Brava and an example to others not to attempt similar things that we condemn her to be put on an ass and given one hundred lashes in public through the accustomed streets of Belmonte naked from the waist up, and the same number in the town of El Quintanar in the same manner. And that from now on she not say or affirm in public or secretly by word or insinuation the things she said in her confessions or else she will be prosecuted as an impenitent and one who does not believe in or agree with what is in our holy Catholic faith.

Despite the penalties, it is striking how often the witness stuck to her guns and, ignoring the encouragements offered her to confess that she was lying or dreaming or confused, insisted that she really and truly had seen the vision.

In a time when nearly everyone was illiterate, before newspapers, radio and television, how could the religious and icono-graphic detail of these apparitions have been so similar? William Christian believes there is a ready answer in cathedral dramaturgy (especially Christmas plays), in itinerant preachers and pilgrims, and in church sermons. Legends about nearby shrines spread quickly. People sometimes came from a hundred miles or more so that, say, their sick child could be cured by a pebble that had been trodden on by the Mother of God. Legends influenced apparitions and vice versa. In a time haunted by drought, plague and war, with no social or medical services available to the average person, with public literacy and the scientific method unheard of, sceptical thinking was rare.

Why are the admonitions so prosaic? Why is a vision of so illustrious a personage as the Mother of God necessary so, in a tiny county populated by a few thousand souls, a shrine will be repaired or the populace will refrain from cursing? Why not important and prophetic messages whose significance could be recognized in later years as something that could have emanated only from God or the saints? Wouldn’t this have greatly enhanced the Catholic cause in its mortal struggle with Protestantism and the Enlightenment? But we have no apparitions cautioning the Church against, say, accepting the delusion of an Earth-centred Universe, or warning it of complicity with Nazi Germany - two matters of considerable moral as well as historical import, on which Pope John Paul II, to his credit, has admitted that the Church has erred.

Not a single saint criticized the practice of torturing and burning ‘witches’ and heretics. Why not? Were they unaware of what was going on? Could they not grasp its evil? And why is Mary always ordering the poor peasant to inform the authorities? Why doesn’t she admonish the authorities herself? Or the King? Or the Pope? In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is true, some of the apparitions have taken on greater import - at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, where the Virgin was incensed that a secular government had replaced a government run by the Church, and at Garabandal, Spain, in 1961-5, where the end of the world was threatened unless conservative political and religious doctrines were adopted forthwith.

I think I can see many parallels between Marian apparitions and alien abductions, even though the witnesses in the former cases are not promptly taken to Heaven and don’t have their reproductive organs meddled with. The beings reported are diminutive, most often about two-and-a-half to four feet high. They come from the sky. The content of the communication is, despite its purported celestial origin, mundane. There seems to be a clear connection with sleep and dreams. The witnesses, often females, are troubled about speaking out, especially after encountering ridicule from males in positions of authority. Nevertheless they persist: they really saw such a thing, they insist. Means of conveying the stories exist; they are eagerly discussed, permitting details to be coordinated even among witnesses who have never met one another. Others present at the time and place of the apparition see nothing unusual. The purported ‘signs’ or evidence are, without exception, nothing that humans couldn’t acquire or fabricate on their own. Indeed, Mary seems unsympathetic to the need for evidence, and occasionally is willing to cure only those who had believed the account of her apparition before she supplied ‘signs’. And while there are no therapists, per se,the society is suffused by a network of influential parish priests and their hierarchical superiors who have a vested interest in the reality of the visions.

In our time, there are still apparitions of Mary and other angels, but also, as summarized by G. Scott Sparrow, a psychotherapist and hypnotist, of Jesus. In I Am With You Always: True Stories of Encounters with Jesus (Bantam, 1995), first-hand accounts, some moving, some banal, of such encounters are laid out. Oddly, most of them are straightforward dreams, acknowledged as such, and the ones called visions are said to differ from dreams ‘only because we experience them while we are awake’. But, for Sparrow, judging something ‘only a dream’ does not compromise its external reality. For Sparrow, any being you dream of, and any incident, really exists in the world outside your head. He specifically denies that dreams are ‘purely subjective’. Evidence doesn’t enter into it. If you dreamed it, if it felt good, if it elicited wonder, why then it really happened. There’s not a sceptical bone in Sparrow’s body. When Jesus tells a troubled woman in an ‘intolerable’ marriage to throw the bum out, Sparrow admits that this poses problems for ‘advocates of a scripturally consistent position’. In that case, ‘[ultimately, perhaps, one could say that virtually all presumed guidance is generated from within’. What if someone reported a dream in which Jesus counselled, say, abortion - or vengeance? And if indeed somewhere, somehow we must eventually draw the line and conclude that some dreams are invented by the dreamer, why not all?

Why would people invent abduction stories? Why, for that matter, would people appear on TV audience participation programmes devoted to sexual humiliation of the ‘guests’ - the current rage in America’s video wasteland? Discovering that you’re an alien abductee is at least a break from the routine of everyday life. You gain the attention of peers, therapists, maybe even the media. There is a sense of discovery, exhilaration, awe. What will you remember next? You begin to believe that you may be the harbinger or even the instrument of momentous events now rolling towards us. And you don’t want to disappoint your therapist. You crave his or her approval. I think there can very well be psychic rewards in becoming an abductee.

For comparison, consider product tampering cases, which convey very little of the sense of wonder that surrounds UFOs and alien abductions: someone claims to find a hypodermic syringe in a popular soft drink can. Understandably, this is upsetting. It’s reported in newspapers and especially on television news. Soon there’s a spate, a virtual epidemic of similar reports from all over the country. But it’s very hard to see how a hypodermic syringe could get into a can at the factory, and in none of the cases are witnesses present when an intact can is opened and a syringe discovered inside.

Slowly the evidence accumulates that this is a ‘copycat’ crime. People have only been pretending to find syringes in soft drink cans. Why would anyone do it? What possible motives could they have? Some psychiatrists say that the primary motives are greed (they’ll sue the manufacturer for damages), a craving for attention, and a wish to be portrayed as a victim. Note there are no therapists touting the reality of needles in cans and urging their patients, subtly or directly, to go public with the news. Also, serious penalties are levied for product tampering, and even for falsely alleging that products have been tampered with. In contrast, there are therapists who encourage abductees to tell their stories to mass audiences, and no legal penalties are exacted for falsely claiming you’ve been abducted by a UFO. Whatever your reason for going down this road, how much more satisfying it must be to convince others that you’ve been chosen by higher beings for their own enigmatic purpose than that by mere happenstance you’ve found a hypodermic syringe in your cola.