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.


Werner Von Braun and the Meatball Pin

March 20, 2010

My former boss once told me an intriguing experience he had with Werner Von Braun.

I was reminded of it over Christmas when my older son (home from college) asked, “Were there really Nazis in NASA?”  The question came out of nowhere.  Unprepared, I reacted by asking him where he got that idea?  He said he heard someone named Richard Hoagland talking about it on Youtube.  I’d actually met Dick back in the early nineties at the GRC when he put on a presentation about the Mars face.  A colleague of mine, who was helping put on the event, introduced us.  I found Dick’s information interesting, but I wasn’t prepared to give any unusual ideas much thought or attention back then.  So the name was familiar to me, and I instantly assumed that Hoagland’s discussion had not been light and airy.  At any rate, my son dropped the question, sensing my non-responsive reaction implied, “No.”  But, it wasn’t that simple.  I felt badly about not answering his question.  A few days later I gave him an answer closer to the one he deserved.  A week or two ago I actually emailed Dick to relate to him what I told my son, what I’m posting here.  As I reflected back I felt badly for not giving his ideas more attention.  I’ve spent most of my life dismissing without serious consideration those ideas which didn’t fit with my own.  I read about a study recently which confirmed that humans are far more likely to believe evidence which supports what they already believe, and far less likely to believe equally sound evidence which doesn’t.  I don’t know if Hoagland’s ideas then or any he’s had since are valid, I’m not familiar enough with them to say.  But I felt a somewhat melodramatic need to apologize for my dismissive attitude.  Perhaps this is an attempt to make amends, step 9 in a program of my recovery from being far too sure about the governance of the universe.

What I’m posting below is in large part cut and pasted from that email to Dick Hoagland, which in and of itself was cut and pasted in large part from something I’d written for myself last month.  I began the process late last year of going through my old journals and converting notes into something I could share.  I haven’t gotten much down yet, but the exercise is therapeutic, and mostly enjoyable.

So, here is roughly what I told my son:

There were Nazis in NASA’s early days, and I’ve learned things that make me suspect there still are.  They got us into orbit, and onto the moon.  I want to believe that’s where it ended. I just hope they’re not the ones taking us back to the moon, or driving us on to Mars.  The early influential rocket scientists within NASA were all former Nazis.  The official position was that they were only playing the game of politics in Germany to move their scientific research forward.  But some initially wondered if it was more than that, some worried the interest in that ideology lingered.  By the time the rocket program was in full swing, those doubts were pretty well forgotten.  I should say that Nazism is about a lot more than persecuting and killing jews, homosexuals, and the handicapped.  Nazism was a much larger political philosophy, and the persecutions weren’t a universally supported part of those politics.  Soon after I started at Lewis, my boss took me out for drinks to welcome me to Ohio.  At some point he asked how I got interested in space and I told him my dad had given me a copy of Von Braun’s The Rocket’s Red Glare and reading it I knew I wanted to build rockets.  My boss snarled, “Lousy kraut.”  I was stunned to say the least, to hear the father of our rocket program and a near idol of mine so insulted.  “Do you want to hear a story about Von Braun?” Without waiting for my reply he started in…

[Obviously these won’t be his exact words, but in feel and fact they aren’t terribly far off. I took the liberty of making up the name of a magazine article below.  My memory is keen and aided by my journal from that period, but both have limits.]

“Von Braun wore the meatball pin [NASA’s logo] on his lapel for every launch, and at many PR and press events.  It was his good luck charm.  A member of his transplanted Peenemunde team had given it to him the morning of the first Mercury flight, and he wore it for the launch.  Mission successful, the ritual stuck.  Much too much was riding on each flight not to seek ridiculous comfort in rituals.  All of us were superstitious in those days.  Damned if I didn’t wear the same Bulova watch for every flight, even after it broke and I had to wear a second watch on the other wrist.  Early the morning of one of the later manned Mercury launches I went to help Von Braun with a press event, to answer anything that came up related to my systems.  Technical problems with the PA system forced a slight delay, and we were waiting in an adjoining lounge for the event to start, just him and I.  Only a few times had I been alone with him, and I always found the experience discomfiting.  Luckily Von Braun sensed the awkwardness.  He immediately took off his coat, put it on the back of his chair, and walked out of the room to get coffee.  An engineer came in a moment later to fetch us and lead us to the dais.  Trying to save time, I grabbed Von Braun’s coat so he wouldn’t have to come back for it.  Running down the hall to find him, I accidentally dropped the coat.  Unconsciously I reached down, and as I picked it up a spur on the edge of the meatball pin hooked onto the carpet fibers, snagging the coat for a moment before the coat, but not the pin, pulled free.  Stuck face down on the carpet, what stared up at me should have been the plain back of a dull silver pin.  To my surprise, I was looking at a dull silver skull and crossbones fitting just inside the pin and roll clasp of the original pin.  With no time to waste on comprehension, and all my worry devoted to the press event and the subsequent launch, I just grabbed the pin, reattached it where I thought it had been, and continued down the hall.  On finding Von Braun, he seemed annoyed, grabbed the jacket, and we went to the press briefing.  Obviously I should have thought more about the pin incident, but it got lost among the seemingly more serious events.  No more than a month later, though, I was at a bar reading a story in one of those men’s adventure magazines that was popular at the time; “Escaped from the SS” was the title.  I flipped the page and there in an illustrated scene of horror was an SS officer smiling charmingly, despoiled girl at his feet, his cap nonchalantly skewed, and upon that cap the skull and crossbones “death’s head” logo of the SS. I felt sick.  How had I not understood it when I saw it on Von Braun’s pin?  Out of context, in the commotion of my anxieties, I just didn’t get it.  Now I did, and I began to consider what it meant that the head of our program wore this, wore it hidden in plain sight.  I had seen him meet with Eisenhower wearing that pin for Christ’s sake, I had the photo to prove it.  I noticed later that he sometimes wore it more discretely pinned underneath his lapel flap; you wouldn’t know the meatball pin was there unless you lifted up the flap.  I considered the possibility that perhaps this was just another superstition.  Perhaps this was his “lucky” death’s head from his days launching V-2s.   Perhaps some would have swallowed that story if he’d offered it, but no death’s head ever brought luck to the slave labor at his Peenemunde, or to the Jews exterminated from the cities and towns throughout his Germany.  If he still considered that a talisman of luck, then god help the man who has no luck at all.

“It would take years before I knew for certain, before I could no longer deny his ongoing and active participation in Nazi ideologies.

“I stayed at the bar really late that night, and got really drunk.  I didn’t know what to do, who to tell, who would care, or what would happen to them or to me.  By morning the alcohol had done its job and I had “forgotten” everything.  The memory of what I’d seen now felt fuzzy, the ominous meaning of what I realized now felt only like a nightmare from which I had awoken.  I must have been mistaken, somehow about something.  Over the years I saw many things which proved I wasn’t.  But, I didn’t tell anyone anything until years after Von Braun and all the other krauts were dead, retired, or both.  I waited until well into the shuttle years, and well into my last promotion.  When I finally did tell people, colleagues I trusted, nobody believed me.  So I stopped talking, if they weren’t going to believe, then I could go back to not believing me, too.  So I don’t care if you believe me now, but just don’t ever mention him again.”

I did mention Von Braun to him again.  I came to believe my boss.  I had discovered other things on my own.  And he told me things which fit too perfectly to be false.  And yet, I proved myself no better a steward of the truth than he.  Somehow I still refused to entirely believe it.  Cognitive dissonance got me through.

But, yes, there were Nazis in NASA, and I believe there still are.  Hoagland was right.