Recently, Grammy-winning country star Kacey Musgraves, best known for her hit single “Follow Your Arrow,” declared that her greatest fear is being abducted by aliens. It might surprise you to learn that such a successful, rational-appearing person would espouse such an irrational concern, until you realize how many people do too.
A 2013 poll revealed that 50 percent of Americans believe that aliens exist in the universe. One in four asserted that aliens have actually visited Earth. The question is not whether people have actually been abducted by aliens (we will assume they haven’t) but rather why do they believe that they have?
The first instinct is to presume that self-proclaimed abductees are just crazy. On the contrary: Alien-believers are no more likely to suffer from psychiatric illness than the average person. Psychological assessments show that abductees may score high on tests of creativity and display a proclivity for fantasy, but that doesn’t make them crazy.
Not only do abductees tend to be ordinary people, but they also tell remarkably similar stories of their alien contact. The plot goes something like this: victims are lying down and paralyzed when the intruders arrive. Shadowy, gray or white figures glare down at them as they poke, prod, and otherwise manipulate their bodies. Victims may hear footsteps or whispers and feel vibrations or electric-shock sensations. Most prominently, the experience is confusing and terrifying, so much so that it causes lasting feelings of fear and depression, the consequences of true trauma.
The details of the story vary from person to person, but the narrative arc is the same. Why is this experience, which presumably never happens in reality, described so consistently from person to person? It’s because they’re telling the truth. Abductees truly do suffer through a mysterious, terrifying episode, defined by these strange sensations. It just has nothing to do with aliens. It has to do with an anomaly with the neurologic transition from sleep.
During REM sleep, as we are immersed in our most vivid dreams, our muscles are paralyzed. The normal transition to wakefulness involves two major changes in the brain: the return of conscious awareness and the regaining of muscle control. Though these two functions arise from different brain regions, they reactivate simultaneously when we wake up each morning.
At least, that’s what usually happens.
In the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, a delay occurs between the return of awareness and the activation of muscle control. Sleep paralysis renders a person awake and aware of her surroundings, but completely paralyzed for seconds to several minutes, though episodes lasting over an hour have been reported. Visual and auditory hallucinations often accompany the paralysis. People hear strange sounds, see ghastly figures, and can feel the presence of foreign beings in their midst. Sleep paralysis is surprisingly common, affecting about 8 percent of the population. For most people, the paralysis lasts for only a few seconds and they don’t have the complete, hallucinatory experience. For those who do, however, sleep paralysis is a waking nightmare.
It’s no coincidence that the symptoms of sleep paralysis match up almost perfectly to those of alien abduction. In both cases, victims feel physically pinned down while sensing a sinister foreign presence. Each element of the abduction story can be generated neurologically, including the aliens themselves. In fact, by stimulating the temporal lobes of volunteers, neuroscientists have successfully elicited the feeling of contact with shadowy figures.
Sleep paralysis appears to be an excellent explanation for the typical alien abduction story, yet the topic of alien abduction has not been put to rest and there continue to be reports of incidents, week after week. The question is: When a rational person suffers an episode of sleep paralysis, why does he elect to believe something as irrational as an extraterrestrial encounter as the underlying cause?
When the brain is confronted with confusing or contradictory signals, it instinctively seeks out a way to reconcile them. For example, consider the case of the Cotard delusion, a psychiatric condition in which people believe themselves to be dead. In the brain, it’s thought to arise from a broken connection between the sensory and emotional systems. As a result, patients develop a strange symptom: When they see familiar people, they don’t feel any emotion toward them. Even when seeing their closest friends or family, they feel a mysterious emotional distance. They feel disconnected from others, removed from the world.
Faced with such a peculiar experience, the brain searches for a logical explanation.
What could explain a sudden emotional distance from others, a feeling of being separated from reality? That sounds a lot like death. At least, that’s the way death is portrayed in our culture. For people who accept that depiction of death, it seems to align with their strange psychological symptoms. Thought of this way, their claim of being dead starts to seem reasonable, even logical.
Similarly, when someone with sleep paralysis suffers the terrifying, hallucinatory experience, the immediate question is: What just happened to me? The brain searches through our knowledge and memory for an explanation. What story can it string together to make sense of being paralyzed, feeling poked and prodded, and the vision of hazy, gray figures? That sounds a lot like alien abduction—at least it does in America.
In other cultures, sleep paralysis leads to a variety of other supernatural narratives. In the Caribbean, there are reports of the phenomenon called “Kokma,” in which the spirits of unbaptized babies jump on a person’s chest and grasp his throat. In Mexico, sleep paralysis is called subirse el muerto, or “a dead body climbed on top of me.” In the UK, the episodes were called “stand-stills,” caused by the spirit leaving the body when asleep but not returning upon waking.
Culture helps dictate the ideas we are most likely to believe, the direction toward which the brain’s arrow will point. In Mexico, the brain cites local lore about the rise of the dead in explaining sleep paralysis, but in America alien abductions are the fear of choice. It’s no wonder that The X-Files is getting a reboot on television. Aliens are just as much a pop-culture phenomenon today as they were 20 years ago when the show originally aired.
When people suffer from sleep paralysis, the brain points to the cultural representation of alien abduction not only because it fits the symptoms, but because it is low hanging fruit. Perhaps it’s something they always wondered about, feared, or even suspected to be true. What’s more, abductees can take comfort in the knowledge that they are not alone in having that belief. There are many other believers out there, including famous country singers. The brain follows our inner arrow to create a story that is not only logical, but one we are likely to believe.