UFOs: The Hallucinagen Hypothesis

December 22, 2010

I think it interesting to probe the mysteries of the universe, and a useful tool in that endeavor is an extremely open mind. I have no specific agenda here, neither believing nor disbelieving in particular explanations of paranormal events (e.g., UFO sightings). So when it comes to looking for a solution to the paranormal problem we shouldn’t shy away from explanations which may be nearly as peculiar the reported phenomena.

I’ve had various friends and relatives report odd experiences for which I could provide no explanation. Either the phenomena they experienced was objectively real or their brain entered into some unusual, transient state wherein the experience was produced and believed as real. I’ll focus here on the latter possibility, that no objectively real as-described event occurred. What then might explain their experiences?

Brains are peculiar things, capable (at times) of doing things we may neither want nor expect. Many (if not most) of us who have lived some significant number of years on this Earth have probably experienced moments where our perceptions of events differed wildly from reality, something we generally suss out only in retrospect. For myself I will readily admit that my work and my personal life have included many pockets of profound stress, and during a handful of those moments I experienced and believed in things which I later came to realize were not real. These false experiences ranged from the horribly paranoid event I describe on this blog (the one which probably cost me my marriage) to several trips to the emergency room as a result of panic attacks I mistook as heart attacks, to a worried journey I made out of the city I was living in during college because I woke up that morning irrationally concerned about an imminent disaster. It has never been suggested by any of the competent professionals I’ve seen over the years that these mental aberrations exceed the norm for a mildly anxious man living in this unnaturally confusing modern world of ours. That was a bit of a disappointment, I think. I think I would have been more comforted to know that there was something wrong with me, rather than learn there was something wrong with the universe that such things could exist within the space of “normal”. It never occurred to me that sane individuals could take these brief sojourns away from their properly reasoning mind. But, I accepted this new found appreciation for the strangeness of the mind and at some point began to wonder whether if my departures could manifest themselves in my particular ways, perhaps other people’s momentary lapses of reason could not manifest themselves as experiences with UFOs, aliens, ghosts, etc. Now let me be clear, none of my experiences ever had any hallucinatory qualities. My flights of fancy were serious errors in the interpretation of objectively real data, not an error involving the manufacturing of data (people, places, events) which is otherwise not objectively real; there’s quite an important distinction. But perhaps it was possible for others to make that one greater step beyond. It felt like the errors were similar, just occurring in a different part of the brain, at a different stage in the receipt of the real world through the many interpretive filters of the brain. I liked the argument, but it never quite satisfied me. My thinking languished in that state for a span of years until I was on a camping trip with my then young kids and their friends and fathers. Once the kids had all gone to bed the conversation around the fire somehow turned to our college days and some of the fathers’ youthful drug experiences. Several of the fathers described their experiences with LSD. Their descriptions of chemically induced false realities got me thinking. While the idea that LSD, or some other chemical/biological agent, could be behind some allegedly paranormal experiences was hardly a new idea, it was at the time profoundly new to me. As I looked into the matter a little further after returning home I realized how well the concept, if not the specifics, fit many of the requirements of the explanation I sought.

The solution to the paranormal (UFO, alien, ghost, etc.) problem was something that could make otherwise sane people see things that were not there, experience things that were not happening, and then return them to sanity mere seconds (and sometimes minutes) later. A hallucinogen fits that requirement perfectly. But there were two key questions it failed to directly address. How might people be exposed? And more problematically, could hallucinogens explain incidents where more than one person has an experience?

The first point was relatively easy to establish as possible, exposure is not hard to imagine. We all know people can become affected by agents in the air, in food, in water, through skin contact, etc. LSD, as just one example of hallucinogens, is able to produce profound effects with extremely small doses. Oral contact with a tiny piece of paper previously dipped in lysergic acid diethylmidecreates (LSD) is enough. The government has admitted to exposing soldiers to LSD in the interest of scientific (read: military) research, so it was no surprise when I discovered via a Gopher site on the earlier (largely academic) Internet a paper describing research done to weaponize LSD (perhaps it included other hallucinogenic compounds, I don’t recall). My own mind doesn’t leap to assuming the government has any interest in using such technologies against its own citizens, so my interests in the paper were purely in their apparent success in tests effectively aerosolizing the hallucinogenic compounds and inducing effects in test subjects at some distance. I remember they specifically mentioned successful tests using an ultrasonic piezo-electric device as the atomizer, I remember this specifically because it was the first I knew you could use ultrasonic sound to create a mist (similar technology is now to be found in many, if not most, humidifiers). I had now proved to myself via this research that it was possible for people to be exposed at some distance from a hallucinogenic source, and importantly to be exposed without being aware of it. But I rejected the notion that most people were having this experience as a result of some sort of governmentally or privately driven effort, this seemed flatly absurd given even the few paranormal cases I knew of directly where the circumstances did not allow for such meddling. If this was not artificially induced then it followed it must be naturally induced and so the question became, are there naturally occurring hallucinogenic sources which people could be exposed to, through the air or through touch? This certainly seemed theoretically sound, given that various biologic sources exist for hallucinogenics (e.g., plants, fungus, frogs, etc.). The biologic source that seemed most worthy of further investigation was fungus. LSD was first found in the ergot fungus; magic mushrooms are another common form of hallucinogenic fungus. And fungi have far more latitude in where they can exist than would hallucinogenic plants or frogs (and I think people would have noticed the frogs). And of course in terms of a method for spreading without direct physical contact, it’s important to note that the life cycle of fungus involves spreading via spores released into the air. While I have found no research establishing the fact that anyone has investigated whether there exist fungal spores capable of carrying or triggering hallucinogenic effects in humans, it doesn’t mean there are no such spores. Scientists have only just begun to understand the more complicated aspects of molds such as Stachybotrys (“toxic mold”) which can in some people trigger immune responses that do impact the brain, causing such things as memory loss.

From a purely logical standpoint it all makes sense. Where do most people have paranormal experiences? Ghosts are rarely reported in shiny, sterile new offices or homes, they are widely reported in older buildings, in basements, in locations which would have much higher fungal activity. UFO experiences similarly do not often occur in modern, sterile environments, they generally occur outside, where the air is (and the experiencers are) subject to contamination from such things as fungal spores.

In theory this should be an easy theory to test. Anyone who reports a paranormal experience would be immediately tested for any residual evidence of hallucinogens. Unfortunately, hallucinogens are very hard to detect, and if only slight exposure were involved what tests currently exist (that are commercially available) would more than likely provide negative results. And so we remain stuck with this currently untestable, but very compelling hypothesis.

And so I turned my attention to trying to reason my way around the bigger obstacle, can hallucinogens explain a paranormal event witnessed by a group of people? To more formally state the problem, if two (or more) people were simultaneously exposed to the same hallucinogenic compound could they share the same experience (or believe retroactively that they had) and recount the experience such that others would also believe they had shared it? On the surface this seems utterly impossible, the standard explanations of mass delusion or mass hypnosis just won’t cut it; it’s as unsatisfying and as bogus an answer as dismissing UFOs as swamp gas some 60 years ago. And so I began the exploration of this topic by trying to find examples of similar or at least tangentially related phenomena outside the arena of UFOs and ghosts. And after many false starts I found what I was searching for in my experiences with fellow members of a religious group I fell into; most would, and have, called them a cult but I still shy away from that term because it is just too convenient a way to dismiss beliefs we don’t (or no longer) agree with. In the end I left the group, but not before realizing just malleable our minds could be made, just how easily they could be made to align themselves to a commonly expected or hinted at experience and how little we may realize it when it happens. I’ll need to think about how to present these experiences such that they seem intelligible and worthy as explanation/proof that a group can indeed mislead themselves into a uniform experience of a lie.

And that’s more or less where my thinking has trailed off, with my strong suspicion that many of the paranormal events that are reported are the product of some naturally occurring hallucinogen (possibly delivered via fungal spore) combined with peculiar and little understood psycho-religious survival mechanisms in the brain encoding experiences which did not objectively occur as such.

Anyone agree with this hypothesis, or have evidence for or against it?


WikiLeaks: Preparing Us for ET Disclosure

December 17, 2010

Let me be clear, I am not yet convinced that UFOs have ever had extra-terrestrial origins.  Neither do I necessarily deny the very honestly believed and very hard to dismiss accounts of the many credible people (including family and friends) whose encounters, experiences defy my ability to offer alternative explanations.  My problem is simply that I find myself presented with two seemingly equally implausible scenarios and asked to choose. It feels more a matter of faith than a matter of reason. Do I believe:

1) ETs are interacting with our planet and its people in ways which seem to make little sense to me (widely varied interactions, widely varied interactors).

2) Sane, healthy, right-functioning individuals are having imagined experiences which are generally considered only possible among those who are insane, unhealthy, dysfunctional.

I have neither the knowledge/evidence to confirm the first option nor the theoretical/clinical psychology background to venture more than a guess about the second option.

But, if we take the first option as a working hypothesis, that there are ETs who interact with planet Earth and its people, and if we include in that hypothesis the fairly small leap that if such a thing were truth the governments of the world would likely have the resources to have become aware of it, then in this new age of WikiLeaks I can easily see how disclosure could come any day. I can imagine people suggesting there is a disclosure agenda underway would point to the massive disclosure of secret government documents as proof that the mechanism for UFO disclosure has now been established. The
pump has been primed, the people and the press have been taught to accept WikiLeaks as a true, reliable source for leaked information. The government has not seriously denied the authenticity of the leaked documents, the media has not denied the authenticity of the leaked documents, the public has not seriously denied the authenticity of the leaked documents. Had the first caches of documents released by WikiLeaks pertained to a UFO agenda you can easily imagine the response, complete and total denial of authenticity, no matter the actual content; the mainstream media and public would not be willing to give the contents a serious look. If there is to be a UFO disclosure it’s easy to see how WikiLeaks would be ideal for that purpose. Perhaps the documents Julian Assange threatens to release if he is made to face US prosecution are not merely a continuation of the USA’s terrestrial turmoils but something quite different.

If I were to allow myself faith enough to presume ETs were here then my prediction for the new year (or the new years which follow) would be that the government will disclosure their existence via this new international vehicle of disclosure, WikiLeaks. Of course whether that disclosure is the result of individuals with conscience or a global elite manipulating our perceptions for their ends is a matter for a separate leap of faith.


The Big Lie of Weird Life

December 3, 2010

Much is being made today about NASA’s impending ‘weird life’ announcement, the discovery of a life form that isn’t built from the same stuff as everything else. Unfortunately out of ignorance and a desire to get hits and boost advertising revenue most of the reportage has the facts or at least the spirit of the discovery wrong.

While mildly interesting, the discovery is largely academic, and not all that surprising. Sure, it could suggest life existing elsewhere could more easily adapt to available chemistry, but I doubt few exobiologists would have supposed otherwise.

All that was announced was that a known bacteria was able to thrive in an environment where one of the fundamental building blocks of life (phosphorous) was in short supply, and another, arsenic, was offered in the environment as a substitute. Arsenic is a similar molecule, same column on the period chart, which means it bonds similarly. And a scientist discovered that this bacteria was able to use arsenic instead of phosphorous to build its cells, DNA, etc.

The life is still Earth-like, still very familiar cells building themselves from very familiar DNA. This discovery is the equivalent of a car designer proving you can build a car body out of fiberglass instead of steel. Interesting, useful, good to know, but at the end of the day it’s still a car, it hasn’t become a space ship.

Exobiologists inside and outside of NASA have long theorized, and most likely expect, that life evolving on other worlds would be fundamentally different. And no doubt we will one day find such life, even if we don’t immediately recognize it.  Perhaps it is already here, perhaps it us, or perhaps it hides within us or within this particular bacterial.  The proof of extraterrestrial origins may lie in the used or unused portions of the DNA we’re only just beginning to map and understand.  (For those who wish their mind blown, I suggest reading about non-coding regions of DNA, formerly known as “junk DNA”, which are thought to include remnants of ancient viruses, abandoned biological abilities, and more.  It is in these non-coding regions we may ultimately find the best proof of our origins.)

The announcement from my former employer was a disappointment to the many who misunderstood it to be something more. To my mind it certainly paled in comparison to the far more significant announcement made in 1996 when we found evidence of life in a Martian meteorite that fell to Earth. I well remember when my colleague “Bernie” came into my office and excitedly told me that they’d scheduled a press conference to announce possible ancient life on Mars and that Goldin was behind it.  You don’t forget a moment like that!  (I think Bernie was wearing a red tie and tan pants, and I was wearing a tie my dad had gotten me a few years before for job interviews, it had paisleys on it.)  I jumped on my terminal and sure enough I found the notice by Goldin and the scientists, and an abstract for the research.  I kept waiting to hear Goldin or someone from PA back off the announcement which was still a few days off, add a few more caveats to what was being disclosed.  To my surprise the press conference went off just as planned.  We were all excited, newly emboldened for the missions to Mars which would follow.  It was all the talk around our center for days if not weeks, and I doubt this recent announcement is having that sort of impact.

One reader of this blog alerted me to Richard C. Hoagland’s recent statements about the announcement where he apparently suggested this was a step in a secret agenda of “disclosure”.  Given the reduced significance of this new announcement, relative to the one 15 years ago, I just can’t see it that way.