Refuting Alien Abduction, Astral Projection, and Near-Death Experiences in one Fell Swoop - Island of Sanity

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Refuting Alien Abduction, Astral Projection, and Near-Death Experiences in one Fell Swoop

A little story

Suppose that a psychic offerred the following demonstration as proof of his powers:

The psychic claims to be able to project his soul out of his body, to have this soul travel hundreds or thousands of miles, and then to return.

Skeptics question whether he really can do anything such thing. So he sets up the following demonstration: He has a volunteer sit in a dark, silent room in (say) Chicago. The room is empty except for a chair for the volunteer to sit in and a telephone. Meanwhile, the psychic is in New York. At an agreed-upon time, he calls the volunteer to say that he is about to begin the experiment. He then announces to the witnesses who have been assembled that he is about to project his soul out of his body there in New York and to the room in Chicago. He puts himself into a trance and goes through certain rituals. This continues for an hour. He then returns to his normal state.

One of the witnesses then calls the volunteer on the telephone. The volunteer says that during that hour, there were several occasions on which he distinctly felt a "presence" in the room with him, and that that presence had an aura about it which indeed reminded him of the psychic.

The psychic explains that the volunteer was sensing his soul.

Would you find this demonstration convincing?

A documentary

I recently saw a television documentary offering scientific explanations of supposed paranormal phenomenon. I usually find such programs interesting and convincing. I'm pretty skeptical of claims of the supernatural and paranormal, so maybe I have a bias toward accepting anything resembling a scientific explanation.

But this one was pitiful.

Note: This article is about a television program, and I don't have a transcript nor did I think to tape it, so I can't give exact quotes or do the sort of double-checking I usually do when writing. If someone else who saw the program reads this and observes any errors, I'd be happy to hear about them. The program was called "Exploring the Unknown" and it aired on Fox Family Channel on October 5, at about 10:00 pm.

Some incredible experiences

The segment began with a series of clips of people describing a variety of experiences that could be called supernatural or paranormal or psychic. One man talked about being kidnapped by aliens. Another described being in an automobile accident, feeling his mind or soul leave his body, and watching himself from outside the car. A woman described a near-death experience in which she saw a light and was spoken to by an angel.

The narrator conceded that all of these people seemed sincere in their claims and that none had anything apparent to gain from making up a story. But, he went on, while he did not question that they honestly believed what they were saying, perhaps all these experiences were simply hallucinations.

So far, fair enough. That is, of course, one of the obvious possible explanations for any claim of extraordinary experiences.

A naturalistic explanation

A reporter then took us to a lab where someone described as a "neurologist" is conducting experiments in which he attempts to create hallucinations. The gist of his methodology is to put a helmet on a subject's head with some equipment in it which generates a magnetic field. The subject sits in a dark, silent room for an hour with this magnetic field buzzing about his head.

The reporter then goes through the experiment. He tells the audience that in the first half hour he felt like someone or something -- possibly himself, he said -- went past him. In the second half hour, as they increased the power, he felt like some presence was pressing in on him, and felt a sense of fear.

So, he concluded, he can easily see how someone "given to flights of fantasy" could take such sensations and imagine he was being "kidnapped by aliens" or "dragged of to hell". He went into quite a bit of detail about what someone might imagine, and as he spoke pictures to accompany his stories flashed across the screen: publicity posters from alien-invasion movies, pictures of devils and demons, and so on.

And thus, the segment concluded, stories of alien abduction and near-death experiences and a host of other phenomenon are just hallucinations caused by perfectly natural phenomenon.

To which I can ony say: Wow. That's quite a big conclusion from some pretty small evidence.

Examining the evidence

Let's look at this carefully. What did the reporter actually experience? An eerie feeling that someone else was in the room, and an unexplainable sense of fear.

Well, he hardly needed all this fancy equipment to experience that. I've had plenty of times when I was sitting in a quiet room and suddenly thought there was someone behind me, but when I turned around, no one was there. Surely that is a common human experience. And I've had plenty of times when I've been in a dark, silent room by myself and suddenly felt irrational fears. Again, I don't think I'm unique in having that experience.

Frankly, I think it's quite possible that the reporter would have experienced exactly the same thing without the helmet and the magnetic fields. I wasn't there, and I didn't experience what he experienced, so I can't know exactly what he felt. Perhaps the sensations were stronger and "seemed more real" than the conventional experiences we all have.

The reporter seemed to say that some of the test subjects in these experiments had dramatic experiences, like being kidnapped by aliens or dragged off by demons. But it was just a quick couple of sentences. He gave no specifics and did not interview any such people on camera. Given the nature of this program, I'm sure that if a test subject really did have a detailed hallucination in which he saw aliens, and thought that they were dragging him off to their ship and performing bizarre experiments, until the experimenter turned off the power and turned on the lights, when he suddenly realized he had been in this room the whole time ... I can't imagine the producers leaving out such an experience and instead filling the program with the reporter talking about his vague impression that "something" was in the room.

It's quite a leap from a vague feeling of someone being in the room to seeing aliens or angels. I suppose that someone "given to flights of fantasy" might take such a vague feeling and turn it into an elaborate, detailed account of a supernatural experience. But such a person could surely do that without the fancy electronic gear.

Which brings me to the little story I used to begin this article. Note that in my story about the supposed psychic, the "evidence" is pretty much the same as in this "scientific explanation": a feeling that someone or something is in the room. The only difference is the claimed stimulus: a magnetic field in one case, astral projection in the other. I certainly would not find the "astral projection" story convincing. The evidence is so flimsy that it is laughable. (Surely the people who made this program would have great fun tearing apart such "proof".) But the evidence this program offerred for their magnetic-field theory was equally absurd.

A couple of side notes

This same program also included segments refuting other paranormal claims, which I considered of mixed quality. Their segment on firewalking, for example, was pretty good: they talked about the physics of heat transfer and conductivity in layman's terms, and they performed an actual experiment where the reporter walked on hot coals without being harmed even though he did not go through any of the rituals supposedly required to protect someone. I thought that segment was well done and made their point. They had a segment on psychic surgery in which several magicians showed how they could produce the same effects using slight-of-hand. I thought this was a good first step toward a refutation, but it was incomplete. The fact that something can be done by trickery does not prove that in any particular case it was done by trickery. Hollywood special effects people can make a very convincing plane crash using models and trick photography. That hardly proves that there's no such thing as a real plane crash. All told, I had mixed reactions to their segments: some were well-reasoned and convincing, some were incomplete, and then there was this silly one.

At one point in the segment they said that one could reproduce an experience by recording brain activity while someone was experiencing it and then playing it back. And so, they said, they could reproduce these supposed paranormal experiences by recording them and playing them back. They then quickly went on, without explaining when or where they had found test subjects who actually had been kidnapped by aliens or dragged to hell while these researchers had their recording equipment connected, so that they could then play it back later. I'm not sure what they were actually trying to say with that one.

The reporter's experiences were clearly highly subjective, and I seriously question one point. When he said that he felt like someone was going by him, and then added, "it might have been me". It sounded like such an afterthought. Was that what he really felt at the time? Or was that an attempt to drag out-of-body experiences into the equation? One can't help but wonder if this reporter -- who clearly had a viewpoint and who is working for an organization that is spending many thousands of dollars to produce a television program pushing this viewpoint -- I can't help but wonder if he wasn't grasping to drag every paranormal claim he could think of into one odd sensation. This is just speculation, of course, I'm not making any accusations.

I saw another documentary making some very similar claims a few months ago. I regret that I don't remember the exact date or the channel. That story did elaborate on one point that this one glossed over: This story never explained how people who claimed to have these experiences were exposed to such strong magnetic fields around their heads. (Perhaps the aliens who kidnapped them put helmets with magnetic field generators on them?) The earlier story claimed that strong magnetic fields are sometimes generated by random variations in the earth's global magnetic field. I have no idea whether this claim is true. The earlier story also interviewed someone who claimed to have had an at least somewhat more dramatic hallucination while wearing such a helmet: He talked for a while about being disoriented and seeing flashes of color and the like, but then he said that he saw "gray people" walking around. (When I heard his description it just sent a chill down my spine. It could make a great subject for a horror movie: There are these mysterious gray people who are all around us, watching us all the time, but no one can see them ... until the scientist invents this helmet that does something to your brain, and then you see them all around ...) He didn't go into any detail about what he saw, which rather distracts from the persuasiveness. Were their real people walking around the room -- the experimenter and lab assistants or whatever -- and with his senses distorted they all looked gray and blurred? Or perhaps there were just various tall skinny objects around the room that with distored senses could look like gray people. That would fit in well with what he said before. And would also be pretty boring: So you can prove that physical effects can interfere with someone's vision so that all he sees is gray blurs. Startling revelation. If he saw gray people just materialize out of thin air, how real did they look? Were they just blurs, or did he really imagine he saw well-defined bodies, distinct features, etc. They never said.


All this does not, of course, prove that people who claim to have been kidnapped by aliens, to have had out-of-body experiences, or to have had near-death experiences, are relating objectively real events and not illusions. My point here is that the people who made this program are just as irrational as the people they criticize. Yes, it is certainly true that some people are gullible and superstitious, and will quickly assume that any phenomenon that they don't understand must be supernatural. They will then take the flimsiest evidence as "proof" that these supernatural events are real. But the producers of this program demonstrated an equally irrational attitude: They instantly assume that every phenomenon they don't understand must nevertheless have a purely naturalistic explanation. They will then take the flimsiest evidence as "proof" that this naturalistic explanation is valid.

What is most amusing about this is that they call this attitude "science". But of course it is the exact opposite of science. Science is a method for learning about the world by using repeatable experiments and observation. The whole point of science is that we do not start from what we would like to believe or what our parents or teachers told us and draw conclusions from there. We perform experiments, study the evidence, and see where it leads. These people are starting with a philosophical belief that the supernatural is impossible. Any evidence that supports this view, no matter how flimsy, is then held up as "proof". Any evidence offered which contradicts this view -- like the eye-witnesses they introduced at the beginning of the segment -- is glossed over or ignored. Again, let me hasten to add that I am not saying that these people's stories should be taken at face value. But if all I had to go on was the evidence prsented in this program, I'd have to say that the guy who claimed to have been kidnapped by aliens sounded a lot more scientific and convincing than the fellow with his electric helmet.

For the record: I sincerely doubt that people are being kidnapped by aliens. I wonder about out-of-body and near-death experiences, I tend to think they're real, but proof is very hard to come by. I wouldn't be particularly disturbed if I found out I was wrong, so I don't think I'm biased on this. Perhaps somewhere else I'll discuss my thoughts on these subjects in more detail. It is not my purpose here to claim that any supposed supernatural event is real. Rather, it is my purpose here to ridicule people who calls themselves "scientific" while using anti-scientific arguments.

© 1999 by Jay Johansen


Coolio Jan 22, 2010

Hi Jay, read your article regarding the out of body, but what is the scientific explanation of Near death experiences? there have been many cases where the brain is dead and yet the person explains some amazing details of after life which has evidence that it is true.

Jay Johansen Jan 24, 2010

If by "scientific explanation" you mean an explanation that does not involve life after death, I have yet to hear a convincing theory.

I've heard several explanations that go something like this: "Yes, it's true that many people claim to have passed through a tunnel and at the other end seen a "being of light". But these people were all experiencing brain death, and it stands to reason that the outer parts of the brain would die first, thus creating darkness at the edges and light in the middle, i.e. a tunnel."

Personally, I find this explanation almost laughable. What in the world makes someone thing that a dying person would have a vision or hallucination that mimics the shape of the part of the brain that is dying? Even if it is true that the outer edges of the brain die first, what makes someone think that would be "copied" in the shape of the person's hallucination? If a surgeon opened someone's skull and burned a letter "A" in the side of his brain, would we really expect the patient/victim to see a letter "A" floating in front of his eyes? When someone has hallucinations that he is Napolean, no one suggests that this is because a picture of Napolean has been physically carved into his brain. The idea is so simplistic I would expect to see it in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, not a serious scientific discussion.

Frankly, I find it depressing when people trying to give a "scientific" (i.e. non-supernatural) explanation offer theories that have less foundation than the claims they are trying to debunk.

In the case of near-death experiences, on the one hand, I think it is impressive that many people have claimed to have these experiences and that their stories have a great deal in common. Especially in the early studies of this phenomenon, where most of these people did not know about each other, the idea that they were collaborating or repeating a story they had heard elsewhere is small.

On the other hand, their claims are extremely difficult to reproduce scientifically. As one of the early researchers on NDEs, Dr Moody, put it -- not an exact quote, I'm just trying to give the gist of what he said from memory -- We cannot perform a scientific experiment where we kill a number of people under controlled conditions to observe which ones have near-death experiences!

It is certainly possible, or at least conceivable, that there is some physical process going on that causes a certain type of hallucination when people are near death. The evidence on such a theory is weak on both sides.

The most persuasive argument that I've heard against NDEs being something real is this: Many claim that their soul or some sort of consciousness leaves their body and hovers above it, watching the doctors operate or whatever. And yet, last I heard anyway, no one who has made such a claim has been able to point to something that they clearly could not have seen from their body. Like, one medical researcher put a computer display with some short message on top of a cabinet in an operating room, with the display facing upward so it could not be seen by anyone standing on the floor. He reports that no one claiming to have an out-of-body experience could tell him what the message said.

On the fourth hand -- or whatever I'm up to now -- I find it extremely interesting that claims of NDEs do not match the popular image of what the afterlife is like, but are consistent with Biblical descriptions. Like, the typical NDE story does not involve harps or angels with white robes and big fluffy wings or standing before a bearded old man on a throne or any of that sort of thing. Yet it does match Biblical statements about the basic idea of an immortal soul, of one's life being laid bare, meeting friends and relatives who have died before, etc.

The fact that no one is able to give a mundane explanation that fits the facts -- no one I've heard, anyway -- is also interesting, but doesn't prove there is no such explanation. There are plenty of natural phenomenon that science cannot explain. Usually the phenomena are too technical or otherwise uninteresting to lead people to give supernatural or otherwise amazing explanations.

So personally, I end up ... undecided. It's interesting, but the evidence is too vague and difficult to confirm to really be convincing.

Coolio Jan 25, 2010

I mean ok, it sounds to vague, but, what about the people who were born blind from beginning and they had this experience where they could tell 100% accurately the colors, the people what they were discussing, and so on. It still there is evidence that how can from birth a blind person can tell the color and conversations which were going on? The brain is dead, it is not there, yet getting hallucinations. Like example, a women died, and she said the same thing tunnel, bright light etc, but she also told that she saw her cousin, which she was unaware of her death, and when she said she saw her cousin and she told her she died, they found out AFTER, so this is in a way a scientific proof of knowing something beforehand, I mean how could she tell then? There surely is something after death, but yes I agree to sounds vague, probably God is too powerful for us that we cannot completely reveal his secrets. Despite of being a high-standard country, with high technology rising, God is a big question in nature and science. Since even scientists which used to disagree about this have finally agreed there is something, since the brain is dead, it is not there, so where does the person get hallucinations? That to which have been verified accurately. There is something, but, only if that almighty will reveal to us then we will get to know, otherwise we are just puppets which dance on it's ordered tunes, anyways nice article by the way. Bye take care.

George H May 20, 2010


I saw that "History of UFO's" on the History Channel that ended with the magnet helmet experiment. I'm telling you what they are doing is artificially inducing sleep paralysis. The subjects symptoms are identical (except the paralysis). Just google it. I've had it a bunch of times. There is a physiological explanation for it which I totally buy, but that doesn't stop it from being a real trip. Scarier than hell sometimes too. I'm one of those people that kind of likes it due to its uncanny nature. It feels like a trip to the low end frequencies of the subtle plane (Hinduism, Kabala) or where the ship goes in the movie Event Horizon. LOL. Just google sleep paralysis videos and watch the one called "The Science Behind...". It will have a picture of a brain next to it. It will not talk about what I call "the heavy thing", but that is such a common symptom that it is even mentioned in Wikipedia. I wonder what part of the brain makes THAT happen.

Yea, magnets. You can make a ship disappear (Philadelphia Experiment), send your brain to another dimension, and even cure tendonitus. LOL. George2h3

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