Psychological Theories of UFOs
Peter Rogerson

Originally published in Merseyside UFO Bulletin,
volume 4, number 4, September/October 1971

During the past 2-3 years there has been a growing interest in, and discussion of, possible psychological interpretations of UFO phenomena, this being provoked by the growing ‘strangeness’ of the ever accumulating body of evidence. It is only natural that this departure should have provoked strong criticism, not to say scepticism in some quarters.

The most serious critique of psychological theories advanced to date is the series of three articles by Carl Grove in BUFORA Journal: ‘Psychological Theories and their Defects’, (hereafter PT) (1); ‘Hoax and Hallucination – the Evidence’, (HH) (2); and ‘Jung and the UFOs’, (JU) (3). In these articles Grove raises a number of specific criticisms of the psychological theories that have been advanced to date, and also any that May be advanced in the future. It is hoped in this article to answer each point specifically.

Grove is quite right in rejecting pseudo-psychological hypotheses which regard UFO phenomena as journalistic sensations, and percipients as alcoholics. Such ideas are not however those that serious proponents of psychological theories are talking about. We can limit discussion in the main to the possibility of hallucination as a cause of UFO experiences. This can be done under two heads:

  • (a) Can hallucination take place under the conditions under which UFO percipience allegedly takes place, and can psychologically normal people be hallucinated?
  • (b) Is there anything in the accounts of UFO percipience that would automatically eliminate hallucination?

With regard to (a) Grove tends to suggest the answer is ’no’, on the grounds that hallucinations are uncommon, and occur in definite psychological states – sensory restriction, sleep deprivation, psychotic and neurophysiological abnormality, drug intake and deep hypnotic trance. (PT) These views are only partly correct. In fact hallucination of a simple and undramatic kind probably occurs at least once in everyone’s lifetime, With some people hallucinations may occur several times and with a small proportion of the population hallucinations are more or less frequent – ostensible clairvoyants and trance mediums, for example, Here, of course, we are approaching the boundaries of psychosis. The evidence collected by psychologists suggests that about 15% of the population tend to be hallucinators. It would be interesting to know if high hallucinator subjects are also deep trance hypnotics.

The hallucinations that ‘normal’ people experience tend to be fleeting affairs, they do not have the complexity and behavioural changes that are associated with psychotic conditions.  The closest comparison between UFO percipience and acknowledged hallucinations occurs in the field of apparitions which are generally reported by psycholocically ‘normal’ people in the course of everyday activity. The evidence collected by parapsychologists discounts the view that hallucinations are confined to extreme psychological conditions. But even if this were not the case, the criteria suggested by Grove are capable of a far more liberal interpretation than may be envisaged at first glance. Sensory restriction hallucinations are by no means confined to ‘black room’ restriction (such as that used in astronaut training) though hallucinations in total sensory restriction are  extremely vivid and complex. Motorists driving through monotonous scenery or at night often experience very vivid hallucinations; indeed they may enter completely trance-like states, a fact which is recognised as a significant cause of major accidents. Such a condition, especially in a deep trance subject, may be the cause of many of the dramatic UFO reports involving night drivers.

Hallucinations can be produced by a variety of chemical substances. Carbon monoxide in trace amounts, if inhaled over a long period can produce hallucinations and psychotic reactions; reduction in oxygen supply can produce similar results. It is also true that no definite opinion on the cause of schizophrenia exists. There seems to be as much evidence that it is caused by chemical changes in the body as by emotional causes. It may thus be that pollution is as significant a cause of the rapid growth of mental illness as is the ‘pace of modern living’. It may be that some flaps in agricultural areas are the results of some very unpleasant side effects of modern insect sprays.

There can be little doubt that the ‘silent contactees’ described by Keel and others are psychotic subjects. The symptoms described are classic symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. Keel has claimed that the majority of Type I percipients he has interviewed are suffering from these after effects. If this claim can be substantiated it would indicate that either the percipients have experienced a traumatic event which has caused a psychotic reaction, or that Type I percipience may be a preliminary sign of psychosis. Therefore we would be justified in concluding that hallucination can take place under conditions described by UFO percipients.

Specific Objections to the Psychological Hypothesis

  • That collective percipience rules out hallucination as collective hallucination is impossible (PT).

While the evidence for mass hallucination is not conclusive, it is by no means negligible. The Fatima case is a striking example. It would be almost impossible to envisage any objective thing which would be visible to only a certain number of a contiguous group. Cases of collectively perceived apparitions are by no means a complete rarity. Tyrrell (4) counted 130 such cases and gave a number of examples. He and most other parapsychologists have regarded such cases as hallucinations generated by parapsychological interaction. Alternatives to such a viewpoint have never had much success, and were often little more than meaningless phrase. The notion of parapsychological interaction has a wide measure of acceptance in psychological circles, and has far more evidential blacking than the claims of ETH ufology.

  • That physical traces, photos radar tracks etc., rule out hallucinations (PT, HH).

Despite Groves’ statement that such traces occur in a significant number of cases, they are in fact quite rare. Alan Sharp has given convincing alternative explanations for several crater reports. In view of this, ground effects, unaccompanied by visual reports can be automatically discarded. In the case of visual/ground effect reports a general sequence takes place. The witness ostensibly perceives an object; later he finds curious marks at the spot. It is a natural reaction to suggest that the ‘object’ caused the marks, but there is often no convincing evidence for this. It is equally likely that the ground markings were already there, subconsciously noted, and later woven into a hallucinatory experience.

Of the 2000 plus photographs probably loss than twenty are of any interest at all. ‘Totally convincing’ UFO photographs have been convincingly explained as fakes, at such a rate as to make us wonder if any photographs are of evidential value. Even the McMinnville photographs have had serious doubts cast on their authenticity. My only conclusion is that unless photographs are taken under the most stringent and well documented conditions, such as have not, to my knowledge, yet been met such evidence can not be regarded as worthy of serious consideration. Radar tracks are of a similar nature, they are few in number, but puzzling. There seems little reason to believe that they must represent the same phenomenon as say, landings. It does not seem totally unreasonable to suggest that curious radar tracks may themselves be the result of hallucination.

  • That UFO reports predominate in rural areas, whereas it would be expected that psychological stimuli would predominate in urban areas (HH).

Grove’s prediction is quite incorrect. Hallucinatory conditions are more likely in relaxed rural atmospheres, where there is less sensory stimulation, leading to dreamlike states, than in noisy urban conditions. In this respect the UFO phenomenon is entirely consistent with the hallucination hypothesis.

  • That periodicity, especially the Mars synodic period cycle, is incompatible with the hallucination hypothesis (HH)

D. Knight (5) has shown that Fortean phenomena show a relationship with the Mars cycle. A variety of natural phenomena seem to show similar cyclical variations. Perhaps minute changes in the earth’s electromagnetic field can catalyse hallucinations in certain people. As for other statistical evidence, this writer is not a mathematician and will forbear comment.

  •  That no proven case of hallucination in reliable UFO witnesses exists

A number of clearly hallucinatory cases exists, though the percipients may not be regarded as reliable by Grove. Both Schonher (6) and Keel (7) have pointed out evidence suggesting that Type I cases are of a hallucinatory nature. Several of Vallée’s cases (8) are not capable of an objective explanation. As such witnesses can always be regarded as unreliable such cases tend to got ‘swept under the carpet’. Vallée now also concludes that entity reports do show regional/temporal variations. (8)

Jung and the UFOs

Jung suggested that UFOs are archetypal, symbols in a collective unconscious (9). Grove criticises this (JU) on the grounds that archetypes cannot be inherited genetically. There is little reason to suppose that Jung ever thought that they were, in a literal sense. Jung always regarded the ‘collective subconscious’ as an immaterial in a dualistic sense. Similarly the importance of archetypes in no way relates to their ultimate origin. However laboratory experiments on rats suggest that under certain conditions learning may be inherited. Tradition handed down from the earliest clan communities of Homo Erectus, until the advent of mass media may well have modified genetic structure. Jung’s hypotheses were not created to ‘explain’ the UFO phenomenon as was the ETH; thus one could say that the ETH violates Occam’s Razor. To say that a hypothesis is ‘suspect’ because it explains a phenomenon, yet  violates commonsense, is a curious novelty. It is difficult to see how the theory ofrelativity, for example, could have emerged under such a principle.

A significant number of psychoanalysts still adhere to  Jung’s ideas,The psychologists however have no such set of accepted views; enormous controversies still surround all psychological theorising.

Conclusions

Any general interpretation of the UFO phenomenon will have to violate the generally accepted ‘laws’ of physics, psychology, or both. At the present psychology is much less rigid than physics, therefore novel psychological theories are more plausible than any concept which jolts the laws of physics. The only serious critique of the psychological hypothesis, that of Carl Grove contains a number of unfounded statements and over generalisations, and thus has not established its case.

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References

  1. Grove, Carl. ‘UFOs, Psychological theories and their defects’. BUFORA Journal, vol. 2, no. 11, spring 1970, pp. 3-5
  2. Grove, Carl. ‘Hoax and hallucination, the evidence’. BUFORA Journal, vol. 2, no. 12, summer 1970, pp. 3-5.
  3. Grove, Carl. ‘Jung and the UFOs’. BUFORA Journal, vol. 3, no. 2, winter 1970, pp. 3-5
  4. Tyrell, G.N.M. Apparitions, 2nd ed., Duckworth, 1953.
  5. Knight, Damon. Charles Fort, Prophet of the Unexplained, Gollancz, 1971.
  6. Schoenherr, Luis. ‘Question of reality’, FSR, vol. 17, no. 3.
  7. Keel, John. ‘A perfect apparition’, FSR, vol. 17, 3.
  8. Vallée, Jacques. Passport to Magonia. Regnery, 1969
  9. Jung, Carl. Flying Saucers, a Modern Myth of Things seen in the Skies.

 Carl Grove responded to this article HERE

One thought on “Psychological Theories of UFOs
Peter Rogerson

  1. After nearly 40 years portions of this still hold up, though clearly Grove and I greatly underestimated the role of misperception, suggestion etc in such matters. I am much less enamoured of parapsychology than I was then, and even less so of Jung, but otherwise many of the other points still hold sway.

    Of course the real purpose of this article was to establish contact with Carl Grove and discuss his work on the 1909 airship. It was as a result of that contact that I got in touch with Roger Sandell, the rest, as they say, is history.

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