`Believing is seeing' still explains UFO sightings after 40 years

IT'S a dramatic scene. Witnesses recall encounters with alien spacecraft. They describe the ships, the ``hums'' or other noises they heard, and sometimes the ``strange numbness'' or other sensations they felt. In some cases, too, they tell of being abducted and subjected to physical examination. Hypnosis aids their memory. There's been an outbreak of these reports on TV talk shows and in the press around the United States and a few other countries. UFO (unidentified flying object) mania is back, enhanced by release of several books about alien visitations.

But little is said of the truly remarkable discoveries made about the UFO phenomenon since Kenneth Arnold gave the colorful name ``flying saucers'' to what appeared to be disk-shaped objects in flight on June 24, 1947.

Investigators have identified well over 90 percent of the UFOs reported since that seminal encounter 40 years ago. What many people took to be spacecraft turned out to be earthly phenomena that ranged from something as ordinary as an advertising plane to rarely seen atmospheric distortions of stars, planets, and lights on the ground. Often these were not just careless observations. Careful study of these IFOs (identified flying objects) has shown how readily people see what they are preconditioned to see.

What's remarkable about this is the finding that many people are preconditioned to see ``flying saucers'' even though they may have little interest in the subject. The pervasiveness of print and electronic media is such that casual news reports have preconditioned human thinking on this subject to a greater extent than most people realize.

That's not a new conclusion. Allen Hendry, former chief investigator for the Center for UFO Studies established by the late J. Allen Hynek, laid it all out in ``The UFO Handbook'' (Doubleday Dolphin Books, 1979). It's worth recalling some of Hendry's insights, however, on this anniversary occasion.

Among other things, he looked at what is said to be ``alien'' about UFOs in the light of what happened in the IFO cases.

For example, there's the premise that no natural or man-made object would look like a domed disk or hat-shaped craft (the typical flying saucer image) when seen at close range. Hendry found that witnesses seeing something as sketchy as the flashing lights of an advertising plane (but not the plane itself) would repeatedly fill in the dome shape they subconsciously expected to see. Even sound was sometimes imagined, as in the case of a star misperceived as a spacecraft that ``made a whirring noise like on TV shows.''

UFOs are said to defy the laws of physics because they reverse direction instantaneously or otherwise move in ``impossible'' ways. Hendry found that lights of advertising planes and other light sources often gave that impression. ``Too fast for any plane, I'll bet my life on it,'' one witness said of what was, indeed, a misperceived advertising plane.

UFO enthusiasts often give great weight to sightings by ``trained'' observers such as pilots, police, or scientists. But Hendry found that these people misperceived things as readily as anyone else.

In short, Hendry found that - ``trained'' observers or not - a great many witnesses were subconsiously projecting the preconceived flying saucer image on misperceived earthly objects. Hendry concluded that ``this demonstrates a subconscious emotional loading or `programming' on a mass level.''

This may play a role in the abduction cases too. Unfortunately there are no IFOs to check this out, although investigators have uncovered fraud in some instances. Abduction cases, however, do reflect a common theme. Aliens communicate with victims telepathically. Their ships often have the traditional saucer shape. Hypnosis usually is needed to release the ``blocked'' memories of the victims.

Hendry found hypnosis to be an unreliable tool for getting at the truth of this emotionally charged issue.

Concerning abduction cases, he concluded: ``Carefully studying IFOs revealed the subconscious desires and preconceived notions we all share about the UFO subject - and hypnosis is a direct address to that subconscious where this material is stored.''

Thus, 40 years of UFO research has told us more about human beings than about space-faring aliens. Psychologists have often noted how the notion of such aliens reflects the human tendency to look to gods or other superbeings for a transcendent hope. With communications media bringing us modern images that resonate with this ancient tendency, we begin to see alien visitors in advertising planes. It makes one wonder what other media-aided preconceptions color our views of the world.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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