Why Do People Believe in Alien Abductions?
This post is based largely on portions of the fifth chapter in Elixir J. Sternberg’s Book “Neurologic and the Brain’s idea Rationale Behind Our Irrational Behavior.” The title of this post is the same as the title of Chapter 5. The subtitle to this chapter is “On Paranormal Experience, Narrative, and the Development of Strange Beliefs.” Sternberg begins the chapter with the true story of his ninth grade French teacher who annually told her story of being abducted by aliens. Moreover, she was convinced that her story was true. Sternberg covers some statistics indicating that a small minority have claimed similar experiences and that there is no evidence that these people are suffering from any mental maladies. However, he does offer an explanation in terms of sleep paralysis, a condition first described in 1876 by an American neurologist, Weir Mitchell. Here is MItchell’s description of the condition. “The subject awakes of consciousness of his environment but is incapable of moving a muscle; lying to all appearance still asleep. He is really engaged in a struggle for movement, fraught with acute mental distress.”
According to Sternberg, “The paralysis typically affects the entire body except for the muscles of the eye and throat. In many instances, the respiratory muscles seize up and the person experiences a feeling of suffocation. Hallucinations, both visual and auditory, often accompany the paralysis. Subjects hear strange sounds that they find difficult to characterize after the fact. They may see ghastly figures and feel the presence of foreign beings in the room. These hallucinations tend to be shockingly vivid and may have a cimlx narrative arc, making the experience a waking nightmare.” It is estimated that sleep paralysis affects about 8% of the population. In the United States about twenty million people have experienced the phenomenon at least once in their lifetimes. The strength and severity of the symptoms varies wildly.
People who struggle with anxiety are more likely to feel a foreign presence during sleep paralysis. The stress carries over into sleep exacerbating the haunting visualizations. People suffering from dysfunctional social imagery are more likely to hallucinate. This is a mild form of social phobia in which people feel that they are always being watched and judged by her people. When they experience sleep paralysis they feel that they are being studied and prodded by an alien presence. Neuroscientists have studied the phenomenon of “felt presence” with brain-imaging techniques and traced its source to the temporal lobe.
Research was conducted on a young woman with temporal lobe epilepsy. Researchers fired precise electrical impulses in the region of the left temporal lobe. After a pulse struck the junction between the temporal and parietal lobes the sun woman felt someone in the room who had not been there previously.
Sternberg describes a gentleman who had ben admitted to the inpatient psychiatric unit. He was an elderly man with bipolar disorder. His complaint was that he was dead. Believe it or not, there is a name for this complaint. It is the Cotard delusion. It is a puzzle how the Cotard delusion arises, but the theory is that it is a failure to connect perceptions with emotions. It’s associated with a disconnect between the sensory system and the limbic system. The limbic system includes the amygdala and the hypothalamus, which are located at the interior surface of the temporal lobe. It processes emotion and memory. When people feel dissociated from reality, and watch the world as if from afar, it feels like death. Being dead is the easiest explanation that unconscious mind can come to.
There is a related disorder, the Capgras Syndrome, in which the brain reaches for another bizarre theory. Patients believe that everyone they know has been replaced by a physically identical imposter. There is a case where the man thought his wife was replaced by another woman. After intercourse he would beg his wife not to tell his wife that he was having sex with another woman. They developed new sexual practices and after forty-five years together he claimed that sex with his wife was too ordinary, and it was more exciting with this “new woman.” A CT scan of this man’s brain revealed a shrunken amygdala, hippocampus and temporal lobe—the same regions that are dysfunctional in the Cotard delusion.
Sternberg notes that the unconscious system in the brain can generate any number of narratives to explain the same set of symptoms. “When concocting a story to reconcile conflicting stimuli, the brain has to dig deep, calling upon our buried convictions, tendencies, and wonders.” So it is not surprise that the results seem supernatural.
Near death experiences provide interesting data. A Dutch research group studied 344 patients in ten hospitals who survived a heart attack. 62 patients (18%) reported having some sort of near-death sensory experienced. Here is a breakdown of the percentage of these patients reporting each type of experience.
Type of Experience % of Patients
Awareness of being dead 50%
Euphoric emotions 56%
Out-of-body experience 24%
Moving through a tunnel 31%
Seeing bright lights 23%
Seeing colors 23%
Seeing a celestial landscape 29%
Meeting with the dead 32%
Visions reviewing one’s life 13%
Sternberg also reviews cases in which fighter pilots who have been exposed to extreme stress suffered similar experiences. Studies of near-death experience have shown that when blood flow to the brain and eyes is compromised, the brain attempts to fill in the gaps of vision. This process is known as REM intrusion. REM intrusion is the process by which dreamlike visions enter into consciousness thus blurring the partition between reality and fantasy. Dreamlike states that creep into the waking mind are example of REM intrusion. Research on this phenomenon has found that 60% of people who have had a near-death experience have had some form of REM intrusion in the past.
A region in the brainstem called the locus coeruleus is likely involved generating these visions. The locus coeruleus releases the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which helps create the body’s physiological response to stress and panic. This is commonly known as fight or flight. It is triggered by fear and anxiety and physical stressors such as low blood pressure and oxygen deprivation. The brain attempts to relax us by sending out neurotransmitters that create a sense of calm. Somehow this counteraction by the nervous system appears to initiate components of REM sleep blending our dreams with our waking thoughts.
Sternberg concludes this chapter by discussing hostage hallucinations and a phantom spirit. They contain the basic theme running throughout the chapter, that these phenomena are the result of our unconscious brains trying to construct narratives to explain the impulses it is receiving.