From ETH Bulletin (Magonia Supplement) 5, July 1998
Signs and symptoms
In some close-encounter cases witnesses report bizarre experiences, which are sometimes followed by signs and symptoms, such as violent headaches, nausea and vomiting, and diarrhoea. In most cases, though, symptoms following the experience appear to be minimal or completely absent. Where unpleasant symptoms do appear, many ufologists tend to attribute them to the effects of getting too close to the UFO and being subject to some mysterious, harmful radiation. It does not occur to them that there could be more mundane explanations for at least some of those close encounters which are not obvious hoaxes.
Consider the following incident which is reported to have taken place in Brazil in 1965. A 15-year-old boy was lagging behind a party of youths who were going to a cinema. As he passed across a piece of open ground he heard a strange hum and saw two cones of white light in the sky and then saw two roundish craft land not far from him. Entities emerged, inspected one of the craft, then re-entered and the craft took off at a fantastic speed, disappearing in a few seconds. The boy joined his companions in the cinema, but soon developed a violent headache, which lasted for five days. (1)
Here we have a very strange experience, followed by a prolonged headache. We are not told if there were any other symptoms but we are informed that a doctor eventually treated the boy for a disturbed heart . However, this report appears to be a description of what is known as a classical migraine. Most people are aware that migraine usually consists of a violent headache accompanied by nausea – a sick headache . However, in a classical migraine these symptoms are preceded by what is called an aura, which usually consists of disturbances of vision, but can in some cases be of a highly complex nature.
The information about migraine for this paper is taken from the book Migraine by Dr Oliver Sacks. (2) It is interesting to compare some of his case histories with other accounts which have been interpreted as encounters with UFOs. For example, compare the following reports. The first is taken from an account by one of Dr Sacks’s patients. (3) The second and third are taken from the UFO literature. (4)
It was a late summer afternoon, and I was winding along a country road on my motorbike. An extraordinary sense of stillness came upon me . . . I felt that this summer afternoon had always existed and that I was arrested in an endless moment. When I got off the bike, a few minutes later, I had an extraordinarily powerful tingling in my hands, nose, lips and tongue. It seemed to be a continuation of the vibration of the motorbike . . . the vibrating sensation was growing stronger every moment . . . My sense of vision was then affected . . . The hum of crickets was all around me, and when I closed my eyes, this was immediately translated into a hum of colour . . . After about 20 minutes . . . the visual world resumed its normal appearance . . . I had a come-down feeling and the beginnings of a headache.
- Clay, Alabama – Summer 1962, 1800
Dean Self was walking home along the Clay-Palmerdale road after visiting a friend, when he heard a sound like a wind in a pine tree , then an unnatural silence. Looking up he was terrified to see an object 30 m above him. It was 12 m long, with a cabin about 2 m high at the front. It had a smooth white surface with multicoloured lights on the underside, which pulsated in rhythm with a muted throbbing sound which seemed to affect his whole body. The object suddenly vanished, the wind was heard again, then the natural sounds returned.
- Sandling, near Saltwood, Kent, England – August 1962, 2330
Bruce Leggatt (17) had just ridden past Sandling station on his scooter on this very warm night, when the air turned cold. He became afraid and accelerated. Looking over his shoulder, he glimpsed a yellow oval object, rough in outline, which extended over the width of the road (c. 6 m). He became more afraid, feeling that he was being watched. This feeling persisted for some time after he turned on to a main road.
It must be realised that these descriptions are not necessarily accurate accounts of what was experienced at the time, because of the difficulty of recalling and describing them clearly. Dr Sacks writes of . . . free-wheeling states of hallucinosis, illusion, or dreaming” which may be experienced during intense migraine auras, and be manifest as confused or confabulatory states of which the patient retains imperfect recollection. These states are composed of coherent, dramatically-organised series of images, and are usually compared by patients to intense, involuntary daydreams or daymares. (5) Dr Sacks also emphasises the exceedingly strange nature of many aura phenomena and he notes that . . . the sense of strangeness is frequently accompanied by a sense of profoundly-disturbed time perception . (6)
A type of visual hallucination commonly associated with migraine auras is the scotoma, which develops as it appears to move across the field of vision. The advancing margin of the scotoma often displays the gross zig-zag appearance which justifies the term fortification spectrum . . . (7) A report from the UFO literature, of a case investigated by BUFORA, which seems to describe migraine scotomata, concerns a man who recalled having seen a ball with spikes coming out over Lake Lucerne while on a school trip about 30 years ago. His recent sighting occurred one evening when he saw through his kitchen window an object on a patch of soil in the garden which was wine red in colour and about the size of a drinks tray . It remained on the ground for a few minutes, then suddenly . . . it took off, like a coin being flipped, and spun up into the air, revealing its underside with a series of reinforcements” on the rim. It then seemed to head for the window and gave out a blue flash. (8)
The report of this sighting is accompanied by a small sketch showing an oval object surrounded by zigzags. It bears a remarkable resemblance to a reproduction of a painting described as a classical zigzag fortification pattern in Sacks’s book.
In this case the witness reported that he suffered no ill effects, which means that, if it was a migraine aura, it was not followed by the usual headache, or other symptoms and signs. This is an important point. Sacks points out that it has been estimated that the incidence of classical migraine is about one per cent of the general population, but this gives no indication of the incidence of isolated auras, which are probably much more common. Obviously, if the aura is not followed by any unpleasant symptoms it is unlikely to be diagnosed as migraine or anything else. Most people do not like to consult their doctors when they have no symptoms. Sacks mentions discussing the subject with a colleague, who immediately recognised his diagram of a scintillating scotoma and said that he had often seen this himself as a young man, but that it never occurred to him that there was anything unusual about them; he presumed that everybody saw such things. (9)
More than one witness
Many ufologists will no doubt consider it odd that that I should propose migraine as an explanation for close-encounter UFO reports in view of the fact that a high proportion of them involve two or more witnesses. However, the presence of other persons does not necessarily rule out migraine as a factor involved in generating the reports. Few of the write-ups of multi-witness cases give any detailed, separate accounts by all of the witnesses. Sometimes other alleged witnesses are strangely reluctant to talk to investigators. In other cases one suspects that the witnesses have concocted a dramatic story from a minor incident by a process, perhaps unconscious, of confabulation, aided by faulty and confused memories. Also, the strange behaviour of the person experiencing a migraine aura could evoke hysterical reactions from other people present. Someone with a forceful personality might persuade others that an unusual or unexpected light is really a flying saucer. (This effect will be familiar to many who have indulged in UFO skywatches.) There are many such possibilities.
I am not suggesting that all, or most, close-encounter reports have anything to do with migraine. I have no time for catch-all explanations which can be force-fitted to any case that comes to hand. There are many rational explanations for UFO reports and I think that this one should be added to the list. I merely offer this paper as a basis for discussion and investigation. All I am saying is that there appears to be much in common between descriptions of migraine auras and many reports of experiences which have been interpreted as close encounters with UFOs.
I suggest that those who wish to argue about this subject should read Dr Sacks’s book first, if possible. Comments and information are welcome, particularly from medically qualified readers.
- Creighton, Gordon. The Humanoids” in Latin America , Flying Saucer Review: The Humanoids, October/November 1966, 41
- Sacks, Oliver. Migraine, Picador, London, 1995
- Ibid., 86
- Rogerson, Peter. INTCAT, cases 1028 and 1052, Magonia, 6, 1981
- Sacks, op. cit., 79
- Ibid., 71
- Ibid., 59
- Case 9303, Northern UFO News, April 1993, 14
- Sacks, op. cit., 88