Science and UFO Sightings

On an otherwise unremarkable January night in Stephenville, Texas, dozens of people looked to the sky and saw a vast vessel with a combination of red, white and yellow lights flying fast over the area's farms. One observer said the vessel was a mile long. Several said they saw fighter jets chasing it. One said he feared the object's appearance might mean "the end of times."

A pilot, a cop and some businessmen, housewives, and children all say they saw a UFO on Jan. 8. The spaceship moved over the area for several seconds, witnesses said, and then zoomed away 300 times faster than a Cessna jet can travel.

UFO sightings make the news several times a year. In 2007 eight such episodes attracted headlines. Most sightings take place in the South and West.

UFO spotters endure endless jokes about their experiences. But even people who debunk the very notion of UFOs take them seriously. "No one should make fun" of Stephenville's UFO spotters, says Theodore Schick of Muhlenberg College, a liberal arts school in Allentown, Pa. They "had a real experience that's out of the ordinary." But Schick and experts in physics and human psychology say the experiences have scientific explanations. Scientists now probe the most microscopic aspects of the brain and the farthest reaches of the galaxy.

Evolution provides a good starting place for explaining why people have paranormal experiences.

For all but the last 10,000 years of human history, man survived by hunting and gathering plants. To interpret a mysterious world, man projected his own fears and understandings onto his environment. In the "enchanted" view of the world, every part of nature—rocks, trees, hills, water—was alive and filled with spirit. Even in the age of science, the human brain still projects ideas and images on the world.

"People have been seeing things long before they ever had any ideas about UFOs," says Robert Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland. "In the Middle Ages we saw demons in the dark. At other times we see angels in the things we can't explain."

When people see something they cannot explain—which might happen more frequently in a "noisy environment," Park says—they use images stored in the brain to complete the picture and make sense of it. Because culture is full of images from "The Twilight Zone," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Matrix," and UFO documentaries on the Discovery Channel, people project those sci-fi images.

People seeing images also make precise assessments that defy easy explanation. A Stephenville businessman's estimate that a milelong spaceship was traveling 120,000 miles an hour—he says the ship moved as fast in four seconds as his Cessna jet travels in 20 minutes—exceeds the average person's ability to judge distances and speed.

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein used the image of the "duck-rabbit" to explain how people construct ideas and images according to the language of their culture. The image could be viewed as either a duck or a rabbit. Studies show that some people are able to see one of the figures while others can see both. How each person interprets the image depends on both psychological and social factors.

Michael Persinger, a behavioral neuroscientist at Laurentian University, takes the analysis of brainwork even deeper. Working with 2,000 research subjects, Persinger has shown how magnetic stimulation of different parts of the brain can activate different feelings and emotions—such as oneness with God, feelings of love and lust, anger and anxiety, and even the feeling of being in the presence of a UFO.

Many UFO sightings come during a period of earthquakes, when shifts in the earth's plates alter the atmosphere's magnetic charges. So it's not surprising that people's brains could vividly experience what seems to be a UFO sighting or even an alien abduction.

(In one famous encounter, Persinger tried to induce a religious experience in the mind of atheist Richard Dawkins. Alas, Dawkins apparently has a low level of temporal-lobe sensitivity, so his brain did not react as much as others') to the magnetic stimulation.

Simple physics, scientists say, makes intergalactic space travel close to impossible. An international research team studied whether teleporting people—that is, transporting them by transmitting information about their composition, like sending a fax—is possible. The answer is yes, but it would require 100 million centuries to transfer the data of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bits. "It would be easier to walk," cracks Samuel Braunstein, a computer science professor at the University of York.

Proving the absence of something is always harder than proving the presence of something, so the UFO sightings continue. "You cannot disprove a negative," says Park, the author of "Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud," a tour of various forms of questionable "scientific" beliefs. "You can't prove that there wasn't a UFO." The best anyone can do, says Schick, is gather facts and see what theory best fits those facts. "You have to compare the UFO explanation to other explanations," he says.

The mirror image of the belief in UFOs is disbelief in historic events, like the moon landing. Carl Everett, a one-time All-Star baseball player with the Boston Red Sox, evoked hoots in 2000 when he told Sports Illustrated, "Yeah, that could have happened. It's possible. That is something you could prove. You can't prove dinosaurs ever existed. I feel it's far-fetched."

Scientists defend UFO believers against charges that they're psychologically deranged. People who report UFO sightings and abductions, a 1993 study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology concluded, are just as intelligent, psychologically healthy, and free of fantasies as people without such experiences. People with UFO experiences differed on only one known measure: sleep deprivation.

The problem is not that UFO sighters are imbalanced, some scientists say, but rather that they do not scrutinize their experiences adequately—which is often hard to do, because the environment is filled with mysterious phenomena. "How many people know about stealth bombers being escorted by fighter jets?" asks Michael Shermer, the author of "Why People Believe Weird Things." "I have to say, it's the spookiest thing I've ever seen. Maybe that's what they saw [in Stephenville]."

Shermer briefly believed in UFOs himself. While cycling on the 3,000-mile Race Across America in 1983, he thought he was about to be abducted. "I went hours without sleep and thought my crew members were aliens trying to abduct me and [the support vehicle] was a spaceship," he says. "That made me realize that when people had an experience, they really had something meaningful happen. The question is, what does that mean?"

The University of Maryland's Park recalls a more mundane experience more than 50 years ago. Stationed in Roswell, N.M., in 1954, he was driving home on a desolate road one night after visiting his parents in Texas. He saw a streak of green-blue light, which he recognized as the glow of an ice meteorite. Then, subconsciously primed for a paranormal experience, he believed for a few seconds that he witnessed a UFO.

"I saw a brilliant light going across the sky on a road," he says. "It looked like a disc to me. When I accelerated, the thing sped up with me. I thought something was going on. I slammed on the brakes—and it was the reflection of my headlights on the telephone lines."

With that, Park learned the ultimate lesson for a scientist: humility.