Posts Tagged ‘aliens’

Be Reasonable continues to establish itself as one of my most looked-forward-to podcasts. It still only airs monthly, but I hope it sets the standard for some more similar content in the future.

This latest show was the first one where I was entirely unfamiliar with the fringe claim being examined. It’s about a particularly niche bit of folklore from 12th century England, and one man who’s almost entirely alone in thinking it a true tale of two extra-terrestrial human children visiting our planet. You should hear the full story.

One thing that’s fascinating to analyse, and hear the hosts attempt to unravel, is the way in which minor oddities and gaps in our knowledge are inflated and exaggerated, to make room for massive assumptions and leaps of imagination – while those same gaps and leaps are minimised, and outlandish fantasies are treated as if plausible, even necessary, conclusions from a paucity of evidence.

Here’s the kind of thing I mean: part of the mystery of the origins of these two children who turned up in Suffolk surrounds the language they spoke. It wasn’t recognised by the people in the town where they were brought, and the interviewee, Duncan Lunan, is convinced it was the language of an alien world. One mainstream hypothesis is that the children were speaking Flemish, which is possible given the circumstances, but Lunan dismisses the notion that Flemish wouldn’t have been recognisable to the people in the area at the time.

You can follow his logic, as far as it goes. He’s done his historical research, and it may well be that Flemish should have been familiar to at least some of the people who interacted with the children; it’s a curiosity, an anomaly, something odd, if it apparently wasn’t.

But to resolve this by postulating a far more improbable anomaly, such as human children living on another planet and beaming to Earth through a matter transporter which malfunctioned because of sunspots (as he later discusses), is no solution at all. It’s a perfect example of “Conclusion: Dinosaurs“, and if that’s not the formal name for the logical fallacy at play here then it should be.

I had planned to go into the faulty reasoning exhibited by the subjects of this podcast in more depth, but it’s not really necessary; the claims are so baseless that my rehashing the numerous and obvious refutations wouldn’t particularly add anything. But what’s worth noting is how easy it is to start to forget that fact, when listening to these people talk about things that interest them.

The show’s second guest was Michael Wilmore of the Flat Earth Society, a group dedicated to being about as fantastically and comprehensively wrong in a single field of study as it’s possible to be. The conversation was, on both sides, friendly, charming, informative, lucid, well informed, engaging, and educational.

Michael Wilmore and the others have conclusively demonstrated that, when it comes to examining how people arrive at beliefs so out of kilter with reality, and continue to maintain them in the face of all evidence for quite so long, “they’re crazy” is a wholly inadequate explanation.

The belief systems in question are utterly vacuous. They are based on hot air and undiluted piffle. But these are functioning human beings who’ve got there via an entirely human series of experiences and thought processes. Every bizarre rationalisation or illogical justification they need to use to prop up their tower of bullshit is something we’re all potentially capable of, and all call upon more often than we’d like to admit in the course of making it through another day.

It’s hard to always feel this way. Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know how agitated I get at people daring to have a differing opinion during a certain BBC1 Sunday morning programme. Those people are terrible at believing kooky things.

Or, it’s a format specifically tailored to encourage conflict and argument. And it’s nice to just hear people who believe completely different things, having a chat and trying to understand each other once in a while.

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Follow me on some rambling development of a few unplanned thoughts.

Fans of UFOs – people who believe that assorted reports of strange lights in the sky constitute strong evidence for believing we’ve been visited by alien beings – tend to point to things which they say can’t possibly be anything other than some sort of alien craft.

It’s a tacit admission that what they’re claiming is very unlikely, in a way. They expect you to believe in the aliens only after you’ve ruled out all other possibilities, which you clearly need to do before you conclude it must be aliens. The thing is, they’re fairly easily satisfied that these other options have been ruled out.

Unfortunately, it’s a very unbalanced decision. The believers’ approach makes much greater assumptions about the completeness of our knowledge, and has much less appreciation for the magnitude of what they’re claiming.

I mean, look at what happens if you do completely rule one option out, for any given bizarre sighting in the sky.

Pretend we’ve totally ruled out any natural explanation for this thing we’re seeing, this pattern of lights in the sky or whatever it is. It has to be an alien visitation. Two things are immediately clear:

A) We must have been incredibly thorough in our examination of every possible terrestrial source of this phenomenon, and made a lot of pretty shaky assumptions about things we don’t understand and can’t really know, and


Whereas, if the aliens are the option being unilaterally excluded from consideration:

A) We’ve not overstepped the line all that far, given what we know about the laws of physics and the limitations they place on space travel, and

B) There’s something going on in the world which we don’t understand. Neat. Maybe we can learn something.

Neither point in this latter option truly boggles the mind.

It’s not truly scientific to declare it “impossible” that alien technology and the laws of nature have conspired to flummox us, but if we’re going to be shrugging things into negligibility, aliens are easier to push that way than the collective entirety of natural, man-made, and neurological oddities here on Earth that don’t always behave exactly how we predict.

And while bizarre but explainable terrestrial sightings might be fascinating in their own way – whether the true source is a secret military operation or a brain aneurysm-induced hallucination – they’re not as earth-shakingly, paradigm-shatteringly, mind-blowingly revolutionary as actual alien lifeforms dropping by to visit us.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the alien-hunters are going to have to reach a much higher bar if they really want to be taken seriously.

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Scott Adams, the cartoonist behind Dilbert, posted a thing yesterday.

He was considering a step-by-step argument, which seems to result in the likely conclusion that life on Earth was the result of a deliberate seeding operation by aliens. Read it through on his blog before deciding it’s nonsense. I’ve summarised it very coarsely, and it’s more lucidly reasoned out than you might think.

His point, though, was to ask his readers to spot the flaw in the logic, which he finds himself unable to do, despite assuming apparently a priori that there definitely is a flaw. He doesn’t lay out explicitly why he’s unconvinced by what seems to him like watertight reasoning, and you may in fact be in agreement with the conclusion yourself.

But, a few problems with it did occur to me as I was reading, so I thought I’d try fleshing them out here, in a purely speculative and thoroughly uninformed manner.

– Firstly, I think the principle of indifference may be being inappropriately applied.

This is a mathsy thing. The idea is, you can basically guess equally between a number of possibilities when you don’t know anything about what’s going on, and simply have a number of options presented to you. If I ask you to guess what playing card I just randomly picked out of a deck, for instance, you might just as well say the nine of diamonds as the seven of spades. Nothing stands out about any one option, so you can apply the principle of indifference, and treat them all as being equally likely.

But sometimes it’s inappropriately applied. One way I’ve seen this done before is to argue that our Universe is likely to be only a simulation. We think we live in a reality that really exists, but as we approach a time when it’s feasible to create a Matrix-like simulation in which conscious beings could live unawares, we have to consider that maybe we already exist in such a simulation.

But maybe the reality that’s simulating us is itself only a simulation, within a reality which is also only a simulation, and so on, Inception-style, with as many layers as you like. Then, the possibility that ours is the real reality, and we just haven’t created any universe simulations ourselves yet, is just one among indefinitely many. So (the fallacious argument goes) the odds on that being the case are vanishingly small.

The reason it’s not convincing is that all the various options – that our reality is real, or that we’re the first simulation, or the second, or the seventy-fourth – should not be treated as equally likely. The idea that our reality is real makes fewer assumptions about the plausibility or the existence of colossal universe-simulating machines, and can legitimately be given a greater weight than the other options.

Scott’s argument may suffer from the same false application of this principle. It says: we could soon be the first species ever to send spaceships to other planets and “seed” them with the building blocks of Earth-like life – or we could be one of many stops in an indefinitely long chain of other species which have already done that. That is, Earth may have been seeded by an alien civilisation, which itself was seeded by another, and another, and so on.

If you consider that we could be at any point in the chain, and treat them all with the principle of indifference, then it may seem unlikely that we just happen to be the first, “unseeded” life-forms in the cosmos. But there are different assumptions involved in “It’s already happened” than “It hasn’t happened yet”, and so, barring any other evidence which directly supports it, I don’t think we’re obliged to give the possibility that our own world was “seeded” so much weight.

– Because, don’t forget, there is no other evidence directly supporting the idea that this seeding is what’s happened here. However solid the arguments might be that it could happen, or that it’s virtually inevitable to happen with any life that reaches a certain threshold of intelligence, it’s all just speculation. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the same thing as empirical data. However unlikely you want to argue that the “unseeded Earth” possibility is, it’s entirely consistent with the current data, and it makes fewer assumptions about the Universe than the alternatives.

– I’m also not fully convinced that any intelligent life-forms would necessarily reach the point where this seeding of other worlds becomes both practical and desirable. There are various assumptions on which this rests, like our (or other life-forms’) ability to get that far technologically without destroying ourselves; the superior plausibility of the seeding option over any other methods for sustaining life; the eventual success of even a well planned seeding mission in giving rise to intelligent life again; and the timescale necessary for this to happen. (We have pretty good evidence that life on Earth has been evolving slowly for about a quarter of the age of the Universe. It can’t have happened that many times, going by this iteration rate.)

– We also have no idea how likely the possibility of alien life actually is. There’s so much uncertainty over so many variables of the Drake equation, that whether or not any other life has yet been able to arise anywhere else in the galaxy is still deeply contentious. A lot of things needed to be exactly right on Earth for life to get going and start becoming complex and interesting, and we don’t really know how rare those conditions are. The scenario of other aliens having got there before us is far from being a given.

Leave a comment if there are any more obvious points leaping out at you which demonstrate that one of us is going wrong.

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First, a quick reminder: I’m hosting the next Carnival of the Godless blog carnival on 1st August. If you’ve got a blog post you’d like featured, submit it here before the end of the month – or tweet at me, comment here, or email cubiksrube @t hotmail d0t co d0t uk. So far there’s precisely two entries you’ll be competing against. Any efforts to spread the word and round up a few more good godless posts will be much appreciated.

I pondered a little while ago about the role of people who maintain unskeptical beliefs in the skeptical community. And now this post over at The Man Version has got me thinking on it some more.

And I completely agree with almost everything in it. In particular, this paragraph sums up something I may have been attempting to say about the nature of disagreement among skeptics:

Two people reaching different conclusions on an untestable claim does not mean that either side made some grievous error. It certainly doesn’t mean that one view is an attack on the other. The answer to the religion question requires a lot of looking inward. We all come from different backgrounds, different experiences, and different points of view. That’s what makes talking to other people interesting. That’s what makes having friends desirable. Of course occasionally you will have different opinions. If not, you might as well talk to yourself.

However, I have a slightly different take on what it should take for someone to be “welcomed among the skeptics” in spite of a single isolated wacky belief.

The author here bases it mainly on whether or not the belief in question is harmful. If someone’s a Christian but not trying to push creationism in schools, fine; if Bill Maher’s spouting anti-vaccination bullshit, not so much. And this isn’t an irrelevant point. But I think that a failure to employ appropriate critical thinking can be considered harmful in itself, and a lot of skeptical kudos can be lost even without endorsing anything as dangerous as the anti-vax movement.

Here’s another example from that post:

What if Massimo Pigliucci thinks he saw a flying saucer once? Massimo isn’t writing “They Are Among Us” books or pushing to spend billions of tax dollars on methods to prevent alien abductions, so does he have to give back his doctorate in genetics?

I only have a passing familiarity with Massimo Pigliucci’s work, but he seems pretty awesome. I’ve heard him interviewed on the SGU a couple of times, and he really knows his stuff when it comes to dismantling creationist pseudo-science. And no, his valuable understanding and acumen in the field of biology probably wouldn’t be greatly affected by an unrelated belief in flying saucers.

And yet, if he claims that he saw a thing in the sky one time and reckons it was a UFO – in the sense of being a genuinely extra-terrestrial craft, not just a flying object which he personally could not identify – I still think this would have significant implications about his overall credibility as a skeptic.

Countless UFO sightings have been reported over the years, and many alternative explanations have proved more plausible than aliens flying over our heads. If someone lacks the basic skeptical nous to realise that it’s far more likely that their perception or their judgment was in some way erroneous, than that they sighted evidence of a visiting alien intelligence for which no other evidence has ever been found… then I think you’d have to wonder how much their critical assessment can be trusted on anything else. The belief itself may be benign, but it speaks to an underlying approach which is far from what the skeptical community should be aspiring to.

Similarly, I can imagine some harmful beliefs which shouldn’t necessarily rule someone out from taking part in any scientific discussion. Not every mother who’s read some tabloid headlines, watched the news, seen Oprah’s guests express their deep concern for our country’s children, found some sciencey-sounding autism support websites online, and is now worried about the risk of getting her kid vaccinated, is in any way villainous or reprehensible. Being misled by credulous media outlets in one area doesn’t instantly lose you the right to claim to know what you’re talking about in other fields of science.

I just hope they’d have taken on board some better information before they’re invited to speak at TAM. Anyone claiming to be an active skeptic really ought to be at least sufficiently familiar with the literature to know that the anti-vax movement is bunk. Just like they should be aware of the cognitive biases and imperfections that can make people think they’re seeing aliens.

Bill Maher’s still an idiot, though. I think we can agree on that.

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You’ve probably heard that quote about how, if you hear the sound of hoofbeats, you should be prepared to see zebras, but expect to see horses.

What it’s getting at is that either horses or zebras would offer a perfectly adequate explanation of what you’re hearing, but one of them is rather more likely than the other. It holds less true if you happen to be exchanging aphorisms in the African savanna, but the basic idea still works, assuming you’re not in some unlikely scenario specifically tailored to unbalance your usual expectations. You can apply it to other situations, too:

If you hear beeping, expect a reversing truck, not an alien spaceship.

If you taste almonds, expect marzipan, not cyanide.

If you see homeopathy, expect a sham, not medicine.

If you see some bent stalks of wheat, expect some slightly trodden-on wheat, not aliens who travelled billions of miles just to make an easily replicated pattern while no-one was looking and then vanish without a trace.

Crop circles are a phenomenon in which patterns appear in the field of a particular crop, where the corn/maize/wheat/whatever has been flattened, usually by bending over and breaking the stalk near the base, in such a way that some sort of recognisable pattern is visible when viewed from above. They first started to take off in southern England around 1978, with farmers finding virtually perfect circles appearing in the middle of their fields overnight. Since then, they have become far more elaborate and complex. “Circles” no longer does justice to the intricate patterns and corporate branding logos that can appear overnight nowadays.

There was much debate among empassioned enthusiasts, people whose interest was grabbed by the strangeness of the phenomenon, for many years. There primarily existed two distinct camps with their own interpretations: either it was the result of a curious weather phenomenon – some kind of mini-cyclone appearing suddenly, with a very localised effect – or it had to have been caused by a particular intelligence, presumably extra-terrestrial in nature.

There were books published and TV discussions held, with ideas and assertions being thrown back and forth by either side, with nobody ever really getting a solid hold of what was actually going on. No aliens were ever caught in the act, no conclusive proof was discovered of visitors from another world. No sudden shifts in air pressure were ever shown to be able to have such a peculiar effect on wheat, without being observed in any other context, and the meteorological explanation became increasingly implausible as the complexity of the circles grew. People spent hours and hours, night after night, camping out near what they considered likely candidate fields where they hoped to be able to see first-hand the magical, mystical, mysterious process by which these circles were created.

One explanation often mooted from the very beginning was that it was all the work of “pranksters”, but this didn’t get much play among the dedicated enthusiasts. It just seemed silly. These crops were quite difficult to bend, they reasoned, and it wasn’t immediately obvious how an individual, or even a team of hoaxsters, could flatten a complete area of so much tall grass in such a short time.

Therefore, the reasoning went, aliens were much more likely. That was the only explanation which really covered all the bases without leaving any awkward loose ends or unconvincing assumptions.


You remember the zebras I brought up right at the beginning? In this analogy, the zebras are the aliens. And the horses are roughly analogous to “a couple of guys with some string and a piece of wood, who thought of a way to push some wheat onto the ground that’s slightly more efficient than whatever you could think of off the top of your head, and so gets the job done a bit faster than you might at first imagine”.

Specifically, our metaphorical horses (metaphorses?) are a couple of guys called Doug and Dave, who came up with the idea in a pub in the south of England in the ’70s, and only eventually owned up to it and started showing various media outlets exactly how they did it when Doug’s wife began suspecting him of having an affair. All the late nights and unexplained mileage on the car’s odometer that resulted from their hobby hadn’t gone unnoticed.

Unlike a lot of alleged paranormal phenomena, nobody disputes that crop circles exist. And moreover, the exact nature of their origins is also, in many cases, perfectly and abundantly clear. There are numerous people and organisations out there who we know do this kind of thing themselves. We have indisputable documented proof of some of these huge, intricate patterns being created by humans through entirely mundane means.

Of course, we only have proof that some such patterns were created this way. Not every single such circle has been created while a professional camera crew was present. Maybe aliens did create some of them. But this is like claiming that what looks like some dogshit on the pavement might have in fact come from a leprechaun. Why would you take the leap of logic to believe that, without some compelling reason not to go with the more obvious cause?

This means that, if anyone still wants to claim that some circles must result from an alien intelligence, their job is now to draw an absolute distinction between these two types of pattern – the man-made ones, and those of unquestionably alien origin.

And this is apparently rather tricky to do. It seems that the two types look a lot alike to a casual observer – or even, a lot of the time, to a supposed expert. There is no method consistently agreed upon of grouping one whole bunch together as being totally different from all the rest, and assigning them as likely candidates for alien creations. Experts have often pronounced particular circles to be undoubtedly alien, and then met the guys who knocked it together in 90 minutes. And while being proved wrong is an important part of any science, you also need to be able to refine your model based on the evidence that proved you wrong, such that every time you become a little bit less wrong than you were before. Cerealogists have never managed to get their shit together in this manner.

It often seems that all they have to fall back on is “It couldn’t have all been done in one night by humans”. But are they really the best authorities to trust on what is and isn’t physically possible? Have they actually crunched the numbers, or are they just arguing from personal incredulity? This was made overnight, by just a bunch of guys. Which might sound pretty unbelievable, but there it is.

None of the other ways that alien theorists purport to determine the extra-terrestrial origins of some crop circles seems to hold up either. Toward the end of Jim Schnabel’s fascinating book Round in Circles, the author describes some of the circle-making expeditions he went on, with some of the friends he’d made researching the history of the phenomenon. At first, come the following morning, the enthusiasts would look at the amateurish way the stalks were bent and immediately declare the site to be a mere “hoax”. But as he became more practised at it, he began to see the experts in the subject declaring their confidence that this particular pattern was indeed of alien origin, as they peered at stalks that Jim himself had trodden down mere hours before.

There is simply no reliable predictor of what to expect from a supposedly alien-generated crop circle. The features of the circles of provably terrestrial origin are often mightily impressive, and may seem to stretch the powers of human ingenuity, for anyone unfamiliar with just how that ingenuity can be applied in this field. We’ve seen them being mistaken for alien or paranormal phenomena many times, but it’s never been confirmed the other way around.

The human creation of fantastically impressive crop circles is a known phenomenon. We see horses galloping around us all the time, but never even a hint of a black-and-white stripe.

Other sources worth reading on this include Skeptical Inquirer, SkepticWiki, RationalWiki, and Skeptoid.

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I don’t know the sky that well.

I mean, we’re not completely unfamiliar, the sky and I. We’re on friendly-nod terms, when we see each other. But we’re not what I’d call close. We don’t really hang out together much. I’d definitely miss it if it went anywhere, but I get the feeling it wouldn’t much notice my absence.

I imagine we all have friends who we’re not as close with as perhaps we’d like. And the sky has a lot going on in its life that I don’t know anything about, often because I never really bothered to ask.

So what does the sky fill all its space with? Well, you’ve got birds up there flapping around a lot. You’ve got buildings and other man-made structures towering up into it. You’ve got human-designed machines, like aeroplanes, helicopters, balloons, and whatnot. You’ve got a lot of weather happening: rain, hail, sleet, snow, thunder, lightning, not to mention clouds of numerous shapes, shades, and consistencies, and the very odd things the Sun sometimes gets up to. You’ve got your Aurora Borealis.

And then you’ve got the rest of the Universe. Well, not all of it, but even just the bit you can see in the sky is pretty extensive. Other stars, other galaxies, distant nebulae, passing comets. Planets like Mars or Venus, a bit closer to home, are often visible from Earth with the naked eye. Orbiting satellites, closer still.

And there’s a lot of stuff I probably haven’t even thought of. All the things I’ve mentioned so far have their own fields of scientific endeavour, with some people spending years studying them to acquire a high level of expertise. I am not an expert in aircraft, or architecture, or astronomy, or aurorae, or aviation, or… a synonym for meteorology that starts with ‘a’. A lot of the time, I really can’t speak with much authority on what I’m seeing when I tilt my head up and open my eyes.

This is my point. I often don’t know what I’m seeing in the sky. And neither do you.

The term ‘UFO’ is widely used to describe alien spacecraft – machines that have been piloted here from another planet by extra-terrestrial intelligences previously unknown to human experience. But a UFO is an Unidentified Flying Object. Once you’ve decided that it’s a spaceship, it’s not unidentified any more.

And if you make that call, that means that you’ve positively identified something you’ve seen in the sky. Something quite possibly far away, small, blurry, moving rapidly, obscured, and otherwise pretty damn hard to see. Positively identifying the exact nature of something like that, without getting any closer or using any more technical equipment to examine it, or in any way verifying your assessment objectively, isn’t easy. Especially if you’re not an expert in aircraft, astronomy, and all the rest – but even if you are an expert, there are limitations on your deductive abilities based on what you might be able to squint at in the far distance. You’d have to have gathered a lot of information, and have some serious expertise in analysing and processing it, before you could really claim such a thing confidently.

Astronomers use carefully calibrated telescopes to observe their chosen celestial objects of interest, and take detailed notes of exactly what they see and exactly where they see it, so that a coherent picture can be carefully pieced together over time by repeated verification of observations. Naturalists use binoculars to track animals such as birds, often going to considerable lengths to avoid disturbing them, and to get close enough to have a good look, so that they can be really sure exactly what they’re seeing. And ufologists… well, they have a tendency to just point at stuff in the sky, and say “Wassat? Must be aliens.”

Okay, that might be a little unfair on some of them. It’s not like there isn’t any room for a proper scientific discipline here. You could examine this stuff critically, and do all sorts of technical sciencey things like checking your facts. But the people who actually do that tend to conclude that there’s probably nothing to any of this. It’s been observed before that amateur astronomers are the perfect people to find some reliable evidence of an alien presence in the sky, given how much time they spend looking up there and how much more they know about what they expect to see, but it doesn’t happen.

The people who witness these extraordinary things in the sky that can’t possible be explained are usually unqualified amateurs with no specialist equipment or knowledge. Of course they can’t explain what that curiously moving point of light is. But for some reason they often decide that their lack of expertise trumps anyone else’s potential insights, and if they can’t think of a mundane explanation, then they decide it must be something completely outside mundane science’s ability to account for.

In short, the people with the expertise are better at identifying what they see, which makes those things no longer UFOs. The people who really stand by their alien stories tend to be the ones who really want to believe they’ve found something, and can’t let it go, needing to sift through to find a particular interpretation of a particular set of evidence which supports their idea, and focus on that to the exclusion of all else.

And the particular self-affirming flaw I’m talking about here is the point of the word “unidentified”. I’m always seeing stuff in the sky that I don’t know what it is, and can’t reliably identify, and the same must be true of alien-hunters. But it should seem odd that alien craft are all they seem to be any good at identifying. How many people who claim to be capable of spotting a flying saucer in the far distance with their own eyes, and reliably telling you how far away, how big, and how fast-moving that blurry smudge is over there, could also tell you anything about the position and luminosity of Venus?

And if it’s not very much, then how do they know that Venus can’t look exactly like what they think an alien spaceship looks like?

If something is truly an Unidentified Flying Object, then by definition you don’t know what it is. But the assertions made by enthusiasts so often amount to nothing more than an argument from ignorance: “What we’re seeing here has no explanation, therefore you must accept my explanation“. But it doesn’t work like that.

There’s a lot of things going on in the sky that neither you nor I could spot and describe precisely from a single distance glance. “Something unknown to me” is a simpler, and therefore preferable, explanation than “something unknown to me and from another planet“.

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Man, I had this crazy dream last night. But I’m not going to tell you about it, because listening to other people tell you about their dreams is officially the boringest thing ever. They’ve done surveys. I’m not going to look them up, but I’m about 70% certain that it’s actually true. It sounds right, doesn’t it?

But dreams are pretty fascinating things, and not just in a Freudian analysis way where you get to nod thoughtfully and tell someone that their subconscious wants to shag a camel. For one thing, dreams give us a context in which we can talk about being naked in a school classroom and be confident that concerned bystanders aren’t going to call the authorities – in fact, they can often directly relate to our experiences.

And, more pertinently, they highlight the kind of weird shit the human brain sometimes completely makes up, and the kind of bizarre things that can seem to happen when parts of it are shutting down and going to sleep. If you didn’t really understand anything about the brain, and couldn’t realise that dreams are something that just happen to it sometimes, you might really believe that you magically went flying last night, or were being chased over a hill by some giant peanuts, or that your teeth fell out, or that Simon Cowell said you were a terrible haddock-juggler who’d never amount to anything, or that little green men walked through your wall into your bedroom and did invasive things to you while you had no choice but to lay there completely immobilised.

Yeah. If you didn’t know much about how the brain works, you might take that kind of thing seriously. Maybe even base an entire belief system around it. Sell a few books. That kind of thing.

What I’m getting at is that sometimes people decide that there’s something more substantive to their surreal nighttime experiences, despite the strong precedent provided by dreams. They may have lost count of how many times they’ve flown high above the ground on wings of yoghurt, or discussed the mysteries of the universe with a six-foot chaffinch, and just put it down to the imagined imaginings of an imaginative imagination. But some dreams are more persuasive, and convince people that they were real.

It’s not just the more mundane and realistic dreams that can seem believable, either. I’ve had dreams about hurrying toward a school lesson I was late for, which would by no means make for a weird or inexplicable episode in my life. It’s only the context that lets me know that it was a dream at all – I know that my lessons don’t normally take place in between falling asleep in bed one night and waking up in the same place the following morning, so it probably didn’t really happen. But some of these more persuasive visions, which convince people that they must have been a genuine experience, are way outside the realms of normal possibility.

Somehow, they still manage to feel like more than a run-of-the-mill dream. Often, this is largely due to sleep paralysis.

Have you ever had that thing where you’re drifting off to sleep, then suddenly your whole body spasms as if trying to pull itself out of a fall? I get it a lot. Apparently some people momentarily feel like they’re plummeting down a hole. For me, it comes with a not-quite-dreaming sensation of stumbling over on a pavement. It doesn’t really jolt you awake, and you can get back to drifting sleepwards after a moment or two, but just for an instant it’s very abruptly unsettling.

It’s called a hypnic jerk, and it’s one of those things that’ll happen when you’re falling asleep. The brain doesn’t make a perfectly smooth transition from a state of total consciousness to blissful slumber, and has to sort of shut things down in parts. Although we don’t seem to know exactly what causes a hypnic jerk, it seems to be to do with the way parts of you get ready for sleep at different times. Your muscles may start to fully relax into sleep, but part of your brain is still alert to these things, and when it notices all the tension seeping out of you it worries that you’re about to fall. So, it gives you a kick and jolts you back into action before you hurt yourself. Something like that.

But you’re not operating in perfect synch with yourself when waking up, either. Sometimes your brain can emerge from REM sleep, before the rest of you has caught up to the fact that you’re back in the real world now, and it’s okay to get up and move around.

Specifically, something called REM atonia carries on for longer than it should. While in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, your brain naturally keeps your body paralysed. This is because REM sleep is when you do most of your dreaming, and you don’t want the nightmare about the cross-dressing murderclown to send you hurtling out of bed and into a wall. Your mad, panicky flailing for your life should be restricted to the dreamworld.

But what this means is that, in these cases of lingering REM atonia, you become conscious of your surroundings, probably feel “awake”, but are unable to move. Your brain is still kinda mushy, and not entirely clear whether it’s time to get up and face the real world, or whether it’s not quite done giving you surreal nocturnal visions from your subconscious yet. As a result, you may not just find yourself lying there immobile in the dark. You may also experience what Wikipedia rather charmingly calls a “hallucinatory element”.

By which they mean there might be a demon sitting on top of you eating your soul.

Seriously, that’s a pretty common hallucination/dream associated with sleep paralysis. You feel like you’ve just woken up, you can’t move, and there’s some kind of sprite/goblin/pixie/ugly little mythological bastard of your choosing, sitting right on you, pinning you down. A painting of this exact scenario is used as Wikipedia’s illustration for their page on sleep paralysis.

According to one of Chris French‘s students:

Common images are bearded, goblin-like demons laughing or whispering sinister speech, a faceless girl (usually covering her face with hair, moving around in bed moaning and feeling my body), hands appearing from the wall and attempting to strangle me. A hung man talking in the corner of the room, and some of the most bizarre experiences may include up to a dozen ‘critter’ entities (think Gremlins movie) laughing and talking about me.

That is properly messed up. And it sounds horrifyingly real. I’ve never been through it myself, but these kinds of personal experiences can be extremely persuasive, and when you’ve lived through something as vivid and unpleasant as this, I can imagine that it would leave quite a mark, and that you’d be pretty concerned to find out just what the hell is going on.

But it’s important to take these reports of personal experience with a grain of salt. After all, we’re talking about all this in the context of sleeping, and dreams. Nobody’s seriously denying that the brain regularly simulates some pretty fantastical scenarios for us during the night. Some people just deny that this explains what was happening to them this time, for this particular fantastical scenario that played itself out during the night.

And it’s worth treating this belief sensitively, and not dismissing it out of hand as a derisive inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Even though that does kinda sound like something I’d do. A lot of people experience sleep paralysis to some extent (possibly between 5-40%, depending on the number of associated symptoms), and even if they don’t ascribe it to any paranormal interference afterwards, it seems common to experience it as something very different from a normal dream at the time.

Lucid dreaming (where you become aware that you’re dreaming) is relatively rare unless you’re actively trying to achieve it, but sleep paralysis tends to come with something close to a normal, waking awareness of the world around you – you really have started to wake up, after all – which is why it’s so scary when you find that you can’t move and there are goblins in your room laughing at you.

But, while we can sympathise with the apparent reality of the experience, we don’t need to take it at face value. Even before we start, a particularly life-like and vivid dream is actually a more reasonable explanation than the genuine presence of, say, a mischievous imp. The kinds of things that sleep paralysis sufferers often report seeing have never before been experienced by anyone who wasn’t, at best, still a bit tired and groggy. These things are often truly unprecedented and unbelievable, and the evidence that there was ever actually anything there, more than simply an unsettling vision, is always flimsy to non-existent.

After all, how far do you have to stretch your imagination to suppose that these experiences are hallucinations provided by a half-asleep brain? Really not that far. Given some of the stuff we’ve all seen our brains do, it’s not outlandish to suggest that it might be providing us with unreliable information even when we think we’re awake and alert and accurately seeing the world as it really is. But positing actual intrusions, only occurring sporadically and momentarily just as you’re on the cusp of waking up, by genuine and real goblins and demons who leave not a trace of their presence after they depart, is not something to be believed lightly.

It’s not just goblins and demons sitting on you, of course. As mentioned earlier, some people report seeing hands coming through the wall, or creepy faceless girls out of a Japanese horror movie. And perhaps unsurprisingly, many reports of alien abduction are strikingly similar to reported experiences of sleep paralysis.

In centuries past, and in less scientifically minded cultures, it made sense that demons, witches, or other un-Christian manifestations would be what plagued people’s nightmares. (Wikipedia has a long list of possible cultural interpretations of the sleep paralysis experience.) But in some parts of the world these days, aliens are a more relevant aspect of society, and so it makes sense that something akin to the standard little-green-man abduction scenario would be envisaged. But with no lasting evidence of any such intrusion, and with the known facts about some people’s experiences of REM atonia while coming out of REM sleep, the “extraordinarily vivid dream” explanation is far more likely until any new evidence comes along to depose it.

If your personal experience has been enough to convince you of something genuinely strange, then can you really discount all the strange-sounding reports from people who claim to have gone through something similar? Was there really a cat with a melting face in Chris French’s student’s room that night? Are there also really regular succubus attacks in Iceland, ghosts in Taiwan and Mexico, hags who prophesy doom if you say the Lord’s Prayer backwards in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the demon Mora stealing people’s speech in Greece and Cyprus? If any of these ideas can be explained away as dreaming, imagination, or a misinterpretation of some other phenomenon, then why not yours?

It’s also worth noting that hallucinations accompanying sleep paralysis aren’t always paranormal in nature. Sometimes it just seems like some regular human intruder in your home, or something ambiguous like the sound of footsteps or shadows moving across the wall – often still accompanied by the paralysis, so still pretty scary. These also leave no indication of having been caused by any external phenomena once you fully awake. So, either aliens are visiting some people’s houses in the night, and abducting burglars from others, at very precise and opportune moments… or it’s something like a dream, produced by the endlessly creative human brain.

By all reports, sleep paralysis can be a fairly traumatic experience for someone who doesn’t know what’s going on or what to think of it, and the number of people it affects is far from negligible. If you’ve been through anything like this yourself, it might be worth finding other people with similar stories, or organisations set up for exactly this purpose, to try and find some ideas for what might help deal with it. There are some links at the Skeptic’s Dictionary, and easily found across the internet.

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