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?