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?

John

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The Things that Matter and the Things that Don’t

July 18, 2010

My wife left me two weeks ago, on Independence Day. Actually that’s not factually correct, she made me leave her, the kids, and the home. She intends to file for divorce. I suppose I could have made her move out instead, or at least put up a fight, but it would have been a Pyrrhic victory. The bulk of the life I care about that doesn’t involve them can easily fit inside the trunk of my car, and the closet of the extended stay motel room in which I’m currently staying.

I suspect there’s at least one moment in most people’s relationships where each person is forced to make a choice about how vulnerable each wants to allow themselves to be. We have all done things we’re not proud of, we’ve all been aspects of ourselves we’re not proud of, we’ve all got secrets we keep because we’re afraid of what others would think of us if they knew. I wonder how many of us have truly been honest with our spouses, told them the things we knew they might not be able to accept, the things which might make them leave.

My wife and I had been doing a lot of counseling. I’d been going individually twice a week to try to get control of my emotions and anxieties and life, and we’d been going as a couple once a week in an effort to reconnect and undo the damage the wear and tear long relationships produce, as well as address some of the unique issues our circumstances have created.

At some point in the process I began to seriously weigh telling my wife the whole story about my leaving JPL, and the mind shift and fears which followed. The flirtation with the idea became an obsession with the idea. Telling the internet your secrets provides some relief, but the internet can’t give you a hug, it doesn’t know you, it hasn’t known you. The internet can never tell you everything’s going to be alright in a voice louder than a whisper. I wanted to tell her, I needed her to tell me.

A few years ago during a bout of insomnia I fell into watching true crime TV shows. Often enough they’d feature a story where an unsuspected killer spontaneously confesses to his prison cell mate or his pastor or his friend. And it’s not long before his perfect crime is undone by his own hand. As a viewer I couldn’t help but think, “How stupid are they?” While I accepted that guilt and conscience are very real psychological phenomenons, how could these people not have wrestled those urges into submission, just as easily as they had the morality which should have prevented their crimes? I suppose I better understand the mind of the confessor now. I knew what might be lost if I was honest. I knew it might cost me my marriage. I did it anyway. And now I’m paying the price.

While I may wish I’d never told her any of it, I now realize it was inevitable. Maybe I would have told her in a month, a week, or a year, but I would have told her, and she would have left me. The compulsion to share was too great, the need for acceptance too great.

I can’t blame her, I suppose, but I do. My anger at her is putting a functional life out of reach for the present. I’ve been delaying client after client, rescheduling meetings into next month, and using each project as an excuse to push back the deadlines of every other one. My days have looked like nights. Sleeping too much, drinking too much, embracing the idiocy of the idiot box, and reading lunatic ravings like my own on the web. Anything to avoid or justify the present.

My wife was always the practical one. She loved me for being a dreamer, able to take her to worlds she could only dimly imagine. And I loved her for grounding me, just enough to see my ideas and dreams get traction in the real world. I owe what I have to her, which is curiously said in both thanks and damnation. We were a highly functional match, and for many early years a passionate and loving one. But age changes us, life changes us, takes from us our capacity to tolerate differences. And soon we’re just left separated by a giant chasm of dissimilitude. Still, you cling to the perpetual hope that you can get it back, that the gap will close, or that perhaps some invisible bridge remains to let you meet in the middle when you most need to. Ultimately I felt constrained by her pragmatism, grew resentful of the me I may have been in some parallel universe unfettered by a wife who countered so many of the ideas I’d gleefully share with an argument beginning with the phrase, “Now be realistic…” And she would have been better off with a husband who didn’t aspire to more than he was, who was satisfied with being a loving husband and a good employee, who didn’t think his destiny was much bigger, a destiny borne on the back of some idea or invention he hope to nurture from dream to reality. We both meant well. I didn’t mean to be the bad husband, she didn’t mean to be the bad wife. But often enough the things which attract us to our spouse turn into the very things we come to hate about them.

Her religion doesn’t permit of much that is unusual, at least unusual for them. One could well argue that the story of Christ is highly unusual, and were it not for its embedding in two thousand years of social history, few would accept it as anything but a peculiarly implausible fairy story, as unbelievable as any UFO, bigfoot, ghost story. But her beliefs are backed by all that cultural embedding, and her religion responds as if threatened by claims of the unapproved paranormal. She doesn’t go so far as to say the paranormal is the providence of the Devil, but I suspect she believes it. Her dogma was the source of my fear of sharing, most of the reason for my silence, and why I knew this might not end well.

The end came unexpectedly, as they always do. I spent so much of my life anticipating fears, worrying about the unlikely worst-case scenarios of the obvious situations that surround me. I worry about the infinitesimal chance that my plane will crash on its way to Pittsburgh, but I head off on a camping trip with my boys without giving a moment’s thought to the pain of a pulled muscle which turns out to be a near fatal case of acute appendicitis. The worst of life comes without warnings. And even when we do accurately anticipate unavoidable horrors (the deaths of those we love, the course of our own diseases) we are spared nothing through the endless anticipating worry. We’d be better off living like moderate fools surprised at every reasonably unavoidable horror.

My wife caught me, saw “troubling” web pages open on my computer. I felt like a Caucasian husband with a Caucasian wife caught looking at a site devoted exclusively to Asian fetish porn; her reaction operated on multiple levels. She was troubled at the general subject matter, troubled at the very specific subject matter, and let her mind read deeply into just what this specific corruption of my interests and intellect said about me, about us. I limit almost all my research and absolutely all my personalized browsing and posting to one cheap, disposable, anonymous netbook. I ordinarily keep the computer in the bottom of my desk drawer when not in use, underneath two outdated and unusuable laptops. I ordinarily keep the computer locked down so rebooting, suspending, hibernating, or screen saver activation will lock the console and require a password. As with all such failures of security, it only takes one mistake and one wrong moment for that mistake to occur. I was installing a number of updates and some new software and had thought I’d be in the house alone until evening. After the third or fourth password prompt triggered by the screen saver activation my laziness got the better of me and I disabled its password prompt. I took a shower. My wife returned home early after errands, her sister no longer needed help setting up for the family barbecue. My wife went in to my office to tell me she was back, and finding me gone thought she’d take the opportunity to print out some directions she was going to need the next morning. I cycle through so many computers she didn’t think anything of getting on this unfamiliar netbook. She has no interest in gadgets, and she’s just as happy I don’t bother her as I once did introducing her to each new one I buy; besides she views their expense as profligate. Because the installations were going slowly I was reading quite a few fringe sites in Firefox as the disk slowly churned its new bits, periodically prompting me for approval.

I came around the corner to my office unsuspecting. I immediately had the dread of being caught, and the guilty look of being caught. My face doomed any chance I had to play off my browsing activities as the fruits of boredom. “What the hell is this?” set the tone for everything else she had to say.

Most of us flawed humans have irrational responses waiting for activation on particular subjects. Hers had been biding their time. I hadn’t brought up any of these fringe topics in years, they had introduced unpleasant discord a decade or so before, back when my only interest had been academic.

Without being aware of it, I had apparently been hinting at or cowardly suggesting that my troubles had their origins in the paranormal. I suppose it was my confessional toe dipping itself in the water while I was sleep walking through recent weeks. This was all the confirmation she needed, the whiff of perfume clinging to the collar of a suspected cheater. I had a choice, I could have probably gotten away with whitewashing it all, making up some elaborately confused but compelling lie. But her anger invited mine, gave me a voice. And so I told her. I’ll never forget her expression. I imagine it’s a face paranoid schizophrenics get used to seeing, frozen on the faces of those witnessing lost, loudly quasi-interactive rants. My voice was calm, though, but perhaps too calm, resigned. I don’t know how much she heard, I’m sure it became too much and she checked out early on. Regardless, she heard enough.

Instead of the comforting hug I had long hoped for, craved, I got what I had always known I would, something along the lines of, “John, you need serious, serious help. I can’t help you, the kids can’t help you, and the fact that you’ve kept all these… delusions to yourself for so long tells me you refuse to help yourself. What’s all this counseling been for? Why have you wasted my time? Their time? Your time? You’ve not been honest with the psychologists, and more importantly you’ve not been honest with me… I can’t do this any more, I don’t want to do this any more. I don’t deserve this, the kids don’t deserve this.”

The remainder of the conversation continued on that theme, with me too devastated to offer much protest. The evening ended with me getting no barbecue, seeing no family, and getting to see only a handful of safe and sane fireworks set off in the parking lot of the motel where I spent that first night. My accommodations would improve slightly in the days that followed, but not my life; a pool and jacuzzi in the building hardly makes up for the unending hours of devastating solitude, and the anticipation of an uncertain future.

I fear all this time alone isn’t helping my mental state. I spend my hours alternately numbing my faculties and consuming vast quantities of variable conspiracy/paranormal information. Conspiracy/paranormal writings make for deeply unhealthy reading. I have come to believe that if you read too much of someone’s insanity their mental contagion may spread to you, at least for a time. In the realm of the conspiracy/paranormal it’s almost impossible to tell who is insightfully sane and who is merely ravingly clever.

John