They are the stuff of nightmares: being snatched from your bed by bug-eyed monsters who subject you to horrific experiments while you are paralyzed and helpless.
Millions of people around the world claim to have been abducted by aliens, and their stories are eerily similar: bright lights, missing time, lost memories, and invasive probes.
But what if we told you that there is a rational explanation for these terrifying experiences? And that it has nothing to do with extraterrestrial visitors?
Psychologists have revealed that there are a number of scientific theories that could account for the phenomenon of alien abduction, without resorting to the idea of UFOs and aliens.
One of them is sleep paralysis, a condition that occurs when you wake up but your body is still frozen. You may see or feel things that are not there, such as a shadowy figure or a pressure on your chest.
Sleep paralysis can be triggered by stress, lack of sleep, or certain drugs. It can also be influenced by your beliefs and expectations. For example, if you watch a lot of sci-fi movies or read about alien abduction, you may be more likely to interpret your sleep paralysis as an alien encounter.
Another theory is temporal lobe sensitivity, which means that your brain is more active or responsive in certain areas. The temporal lobes are involved in memory, emotion, language, and perception. People with temporal lobe sensitivity may have altered states of consciousness, such as deja vu, out-of-body experiences, vivid dreams, or hallucinations.
Temporal lobe sensitivity can be caused by epilepsy, head injury, brain tumor, infection, or drugs. It can also be induced by electrical stimulation of the brain. One scientist claimed that he could create alien abduction experiences in his subjects by applying magnetic fields to their temporal lobes using a device called the God helmet.
A third theory is related to personality traits and psychological processes. Some studies have suggested that people who report alien abduction tend to have certain characteristics, such as being imaginative, creative, fantasy-prone, suggestible, hypnotizable, or prone to false memories. They may also have a history of childhood abuse or trauma.
These factors could make some people more likely to misinterpret, distort, or confabulate real or imagined events as alien abduction. For instance, they may confuse dreams or fantasies with reality, or incorporate elements from movies or books into their memories. They may also be influenced by social pressure or suggestion from others who believe in aliens.
A fourth theory is accidental awareness under general anesthesia (AAGA), a rare but distressing condition in which a patient wakes up during surgery and may feel pain or trauma. AAGA can happen when the anesthesia fails to work properly or wears off too soon.
Some researchers have suggested that AAGA could lie behind some stories of alien abduction. They have noted the similarity between the classic alien abduction scenario and the operating room situation. Both involve being surrounded by strange figures wearing masks and scrubs who enter your body with tools under a bright light.
One of the first victims of alien abduction was Barney Hill who recalled his experience under hypnosis in 1961. He described being probed by aliens with a long needle and said it felt like his prior tonsillectomy. He also said he did not want to be operated on and was impressed by the professional manner of the alien doctors.
These descriptions could match those of a patient who experienced AAGA during surgery and later repressed or distorted the memory. AAGA can have lasting psychological effects on patients such as anxiety depression post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or phobias.
Of course these scientific explanations do not prove that alien abduction is impossible or that all experiencers are lying or deluded. They only offer some alternative ways of understanding a complex and controversial phenomenon that has fascinated and terrified many people for decades.
The truth may be out there but it may also be in here – inside our brains.