Explanations For UFOs

[disinfo ed.’s note: the following is an excerpt from UFO Investigations Manual: UFO investigations from 1982 to the present dayby Nigel Watson, courtesy of Haynes Publishing]
p. 149 - Jupiter Storm

Jupiter Storm. Chemical compounds, blasted by lightning storms and tossed around by Jupiter’s vertical air circulation, might create the building blocks of life. – Andrew C. Stewart/Fortean Picture Library

Over the years, many explanations have been put forward to try to ‘solve’ the UFO enigma. Some sound very convincing, and others sound like a science fiction novel gone wrong. Not surprisingly, there never seems to be an answer that satisfies everyone.

At the dawn of ufology the USAF used experts to consider all manner of natural and man-made phenomena that might cause witnesses to think they had seen a UFO. The cases that remained unexplained were (a) regarded as the result of insufficient information being available for an adequate explanation, (b) ignored as implausible, or (c) were the work of hoaxers. The motives for hoaxers can be fame and fortune, social experimentation or simply the enjoyment of baffling people.

Another theory, which conditioned much of the thinking surrounding the US airship wave of 1896–97 and the early years of ufology, was that the UFOs were the product of human inventors working and experimenting in secret. Variations of this idea are that human inventors have been inspired by alien contacts and communications to build UFOs and develop related technology. In recent years ufology has embraced the concept that UFOs allegedly retrieved by the US government have been back-engineered and tested at Area 51.

Sceptics like Tim Printy, the editor of the US online SUNlite UFO newsletter, think that ‘the majority of UFO sightings are misperceptions of man-made and natural events. The remainder that cannot be  readily explained are possibly hoaxes, hallucinations, observations of rare natural phenomena, or misperceptions that have been so distorted in the reporting that identification is extremely difficult.’

Nevertheless, most ufologists believe that there remains a kernel of ‘true’ UFOs, and therefore turn to more exotic or complex concepts to explain them.  The default and most dominant idea – especially in the USA – is that UFOs come from outer space. The extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) is far from being a new idea. The idea that life exists beyond our home planet has entertained and intrigued our minds for a long time.

The planet Mars has long been seriously considered as the most likely home of intelligent beings. This idea was given scientific credibility by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who intensively studied the planet in 1877, 1879 and 1881, and produced detailed charts that revealed networks of lines and ‘seas’ across its surface. He termed the long dark lines canali, meaning channels, but when translated into English they were erroneously called ‘canals’. He abandoned his observations in 1890 due to failing eyesight, but other astronomers confirmed the existence of Mars’ distinctive surface features.

In 1893, after studying occult phenomena in Japan, Percival Lowell returned to the USA to set up an observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona. In his book Mars, published two years later, he claimed that the planet is inhabited by intelligent beings, three times larger than we are. Considering that Mars is older than Earth, he postulated that Martian life was superior to our own, and that the canals were evidence that they were still in existence.

Today, of course, we know that his ideas are wrong. Psychoanalyst Charles Hofling asserted that Lowell’s observations were illusory; however, his rigorous use of logic to interpret his data was due to an idée  fixe rather than delusions. When determining which came first, the idée fixe or the illusory observations, Hofling favoured the former, as he thinks Lowell already knew what he would see. Significantly, when Lowell used more powerful telescopes the canals were less visible.

Nonetheless, Mars was regarded as a viable habitat for alien life forms until, in the 1960s, these hopes were dashed when NASA’s Mariner space probes detected high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in its atmosphere. There is evidence that there was free-flowing water on Mars millions of years ago, which may well have supported living organisms at some point, but so far we have yet to find even the slightest hint of life on Mars, past or present.

In contrast to Mars, and the rest of the universe, Earth is teeming with life. Given that there are about 400 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone, it would be incredible if we were the only pocket of life in this infinitely small sector of the Universe.

Scientists have used radio telescopes to try to detect any signals that might reveal the existence of alien civilisations lurking within our part of the galaxy, but so far there has been a big fat silence. Despite this, SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) research has had a big boost from the discovery in October 1995 of a Hot Jupiter extrasolar planet in the Pegasus constellation, 50 light years away. Since then about 1,000 more extrasolar planets (or exoplanets) have been found, of which a quarter are in the habitable zone of their parent sun. Signs of any chemical signatures or the existence of oxygen in the atmosphere of these planets is currently being investigated to see if they might support any type of life, as we know it. This is a far cry from the aliens and visitors reported by UFO contactees and abductees, but at least it does show that the ETH is a scientifically valid concept.

Ancient Astronaut theories are a logical extension of the ETH. The stories of miraculous events and visions in the Christian Bible and other religious books have been eagerly reinterpreted as being accounts of alien visitations. Ancient structures like the Pyramids and Stonehenge are regarded as being inspired or even created by these Ancient Astronauts, and, as in Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is thought that they might have boosted our evolution, or even brought us to Earth in the first place. The evidence for this is patchy, and has been plundered from many different historical eras. As Roger Sandell wrote way back in 1973, when the books of Erich von Däniken were extremely popular (especially his Chariots of the Gods?), none of these theories ‘seems capable of producing evidence that at one particular time and place a unique interference with human history took place. Instead we are merely given a jumble of mysteries.’


All in the mind?
These are just some of the psychological processes that can produce or encourage the sighting of UFOs:
• Sleep paralysis
• Fantasy proneness
• Hallucination
• Hypnotic regression
• Auto hypnosis
• False memory syndrome
• Subliminal peripheral vision psychosis
• Fabrication and exaggeration
• Temporal lobe epilepsy
• Psychoanalytical factors
• Mental illness
• Psychological trauma
• Boundary theory
• Dissociative tendencies
• Abuse
• Masochism
• Fantasy proneness
• Birth trauma
• Misperception and misinterpretation
• Sensory deprivation
• Mass hysteria

The psycho-sociological hypothesis (PSH) doesn’t have such a ring of authority to it as the ETH, and it is far more complex. It is more highly regarded by European ufologists, and considers UFOs to be created by a combination of psychological and sociological factors.

Psychoanalyst Carl Jung was the first to seriously consider UFO experiences as something more than sightings of spaceships or weather balloons. He regarded them as having a spiritual character that fulfilled the needs of the individual. Yet he also thought they could be solid, material craft from other planets. He hinted that our collective desire for salvation from the skies could bring about the physical manifestation of UFOs and aliens.

Ironically, it was US writer and UFO researcher John Keel who, through his influential book UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse and his many articles in Flying Saucer Review, helped wean a generation of British ufologists away from the ETH. He argued that UFO sightings are shaped and manipulated by the intelligences that control the phenomena. He called these entities ultraterrestrials, who are believed to be able to move up and down the electromagnetic spectrum. By these means they can appear and disappear from our limited human perception of the world.

Jacques Vallée and even J. Allen Hynek came to think that there was more to the subject than solid, physical spacecraft visiting us. In Passport to Magonia, Vallée agreed with Keel that the aliens have been visiting us for thousands of years in different forms, according to our beliefs and expectations. The ‘aliens’ have appeared as demons, fairies, goblins and dragons, as recorded in folklore, and they have travelled in phantom airships (as seen in the 1890s to 1920s), foo fighters (World War Two period) and ghost rockets (post-WW2), before they finally showed off their flying saucers. They seem to anticipate our own technological developments and challenge our notions of reality. According to this concept of ‘cultural tracking’ they seem to have been controlling and goading us throughout history.

In his excellent article Jules Verne and the Great Airship Scare, Ron Miller notes that the descriptions of phantom airships are very similar to the real and fictional aerial inventions of the period. He sums up the situation by stating that all the phantom airship sightings in the USA during 1896 to 1897 ‘could be  either anomalous and amorphous phenomena, simple “bandwaggoning”, or even outright hoaxes. In other words, nothing that we haven’t seen taking place in so many modern UFO reports. Those of a century ago are different only in using 19th century visual references.’

From a sociological perspective, UFOs can highlight and represent wider social concerns. In the Cold War period, for example, they represented the fear of invasion by (literally) an alien army. Abductions in recent years represent our fears of being taken over by cold, anonymous forces that can control every element of our lives.

On a personal, psychological level UFO experiences can help people to articulate deeper subconscious fears or desires.

According to this hypothesis, Hollywood films, TV series, websites, books, magazines and other mass media have a big impact on our perception of UFOs. Peter Rogerson, Britain’s leading thinker on this subject, noted that the UFO mythology was ‘nurtured, not primarily by the absurd UFO cults, but by the professional myth-makers, the comics, films, science fiction writers, even advertisers. The first great contactee came … from Hollywood; in the form of the allegorical science-fiction drama The Day the Earth Stood Still.’

Birth trauma theory
In the late 1970s, when claims of alien abduction were becoming more common, Dr Alvin Lawson and William McCall put forward the theory that such abductions are caused by birth trauma. To prove this, they hypnotically regressed a group of people who had no intimate knowledge of UFO phenomena and found that their accounts matched those of ‘real’ abductees.To explain these similarities they argued that we all share the common experience of birth. As a validation of this view, they found that people who had normal births recalled UFO encounters that involved tubes and tunnels, which are symbolic of, or memories of, the birth canal. Those who were born by Caesarean section do not seem to report UFO encounters with these elements.

UFO research and investigation itself goes through a number of filters, conditioned by ‘authorised myths’. British researcher Hilary Evans notes that these are ‘a belief or set of beliefs which, despite inadequate scientific evidence for its existence, obtains the sanction of widespread acceptance within the prevailing culture.’ For example, in the case of UFOs the authorised myth is that they are of extraterrestrial origin. This causes UFO witnesses to shape their sightings and experiences in terms of this myth. In turn, ufologists come along and add more evidence to support such claims, by correlating them with similar sightings and by ‘finding’ all types of supporting evidence to back them up.

In this way what starts off as a report of a simple CEI light in the sky can escalate into a full-blown CEIII or CEIV abduction report because the authorized myth triggers unconscious dreams and fantasies related to the expectations of the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH).

The main problem with these types of explanation for UFO experiences is that we have to consider a complex interaction between our mental processes – which are subject to illness, misperception, genetic predisposition, intoxication and trauma – and our culture, society, myths, beliefs, peer pressures and preconceptions.

Even the methods by which we use psychology to examine these processes in the pursuit of UFO investigations are conditioned by our culture. In the US there has been far more recourse to using polygraph tests, hypnotic regression and psychiatric or therapeutic counselling than in other countries.

In the British Magonia magazine, which has promoted the PSH since the early 1970s, Anthony Brown lambasted this type of approach to the subject. He claims: ‘The attitude of some sceptics in degrading and impugning the character of the average witness in ufology is a disgrace to the subject and of civilised behaviour to one’s fellow man. The essence of the Psychosocial Hypothesis is of cheapening the witness’s puzzling experience, and questioning their basic honesty as a human being.’

Sleep paralysis
The work of Dr Jorge Conesa Sevilla, a neurocognitive and biosemiotic researcher, confirms that sleep paralysis (SP) can involve vividly experiencing floating, going through tunnels, seeing lights and hearing noises. Furthermore, these types of experience can be triggered by anxiety, tiredness and sleep deprivation, making them common in shift workers, truck drivers, hospital workers and other people who work long and odd hours. Conesa also suggests that geomagnetic activity might trigger SP experiences, and that birth trauma memories might shape the imagery of those who interpret their SP experience in terms of an alien abduction. He also indicates that these experiences run through families, and that people can learn to use SP to have out of the body experiences, lucid dreams and shamanic journeys.Professor Christopher French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London, is a bit more circumspect about applying such all-embracing theories. In his considered opinion: ‘I think that most claims of alien abduction involve an initial bizarre experience, such as an episode of sleep paralysis or highway hypnosis, that leads the individual concerned to postulate that perhaps they have experienced alien contact. That expectation may subsequently lead to the formation of a false memory for such an alien encounter. However, we should be wary of proposing ‘one-size-fits-all’ explanations for this complex and fascinating phenomenon. It is undoubtedly true that some cases will require different explanations – including occasional deliberate hoaxes.

Exotic explanations

No single explanation has satisfied everyone, so perhaps a combination of explanations needs to be considered. You can take your pick’n’mix from this selection:

Living UFOs

Ufologist Trevor Constable pioneered the photography of UFOs using infrared film during the 1960s. He considered UFOs to be biological beings, which live in the sky. As they come closer to Earth they become more visible, and they can fire bolts of lightning to defend themselves. They are invisible to our eyes, but infrared film can capture images of them as they fly above us. Today some ufologists have adapted video cameras to capture infrared images of UFOs.

Virtual reality

UFOs could be holographic or quasi-solid projections from extraterrestrial or extradimensional aliens. Alternatively, our universe is a virtual reality created by aliens. UFOs come from beyond our simulated reality and indicate the falseness of our existence.

Time travelers

UFOs might be visiting us from our future, when time travel has become possible. Alternatively they are time machines created by aliens from other planets or dimensions who are coming from the future or even the past.

Paranormal and occult

Psychic phenomena, ghosts, invisible entities and poltergeists have all been associated with UFO and alien activity. Aliens have been contacted through Ouija boards, séances, mental telepathy and automatic writing. This suggests that the aliens live on the same astral planes as ghosts and other entities, or that they are created by similar psychological factors. Using meditation or even magic, some have tried to bring such mental projections into the real world.

The third realm

Rather than conjuring up UFOs, the third realm hypothesis suggests that they exist independently in a realm that has only been accessible to shamans through mystical means. Harvard professor John Mack claimed that modern science blinkers us from the third realm because it only accepts the reality of the first realm (the mind) and the second realm (the material world). People who experience UFO events glimpse the third realm.

Electronic pollution

Albert Budden put forward the theory that electronic and electrical pollution could affect 20% of the population. This pollution upsets our biochemistry and causes UFO and abduction hallucinations that warn us that our bodies are in danger.

Earth lights

Lights in the sky are caused by strains in the earth’s crust, according to this theory. These lights and related electromagnetic activity have an influence on the temporal lobes of our brains. People sensitive to these influences can experience mood changes, memory loss, rich fantasies and abduction-like experiences.

Plasma balls

The British Ministry of Defence’s Project Condign claimed that rare, short-lived plasma balls in the upper atmosphere could cause pilots to see ‘classic’ flying saucers. They could also create electromagnetic disruption to vehicles and elude radar detection. The report suggested that meteors are involved in their creation by an as yet unknown process.


It is claimed that the US and other governments know all about the real origin of the aliens, and are in league with them to keep humanity in ignorance of the real situation. This information is suppressed because it could cause mass panics and completely disrupt our existence on this planet. Certainly government agencies have used the UFO mythology to spread disinformation and to hide the testing of aircraft and other highly secret activities. On a similarly sinister note, in the 1950s agencies like the FBI were worried that Communist supporters were using UFO and alien contact stories to undermine democratic values. For this reason they monitored the activities of ufologists and contactees who appeared to be spreading subversive ideas.


The psycho-sociological hypothesis covers a broad range of phenomena that governs our perceptions. At one end of the scale it can be used to speculate that our own minds can create or perceive ‘real’ aliens and their spacecraft; at the other end the PSH has inclined some ufologists to consider the subject as modern-day folklore. In the light of this, UFOs and the theories surrounding them constitute a UFO mythology, and it is in the realms of psychology and sociology that we should therefore concentrate our research.

Such research is important, because, as John Spencer notes in his book Perspectives: ‘The phenomenon has affected much of our modern society, our culture, our fiction, areas of our religion and much more. It has done this without proof of reality, people’s perception of the world has changed because of the existence of the literature, whether or not there is a basis in reality. This will continue into the future whether there is a foundation in reality or not, so long as people believe something.’

The extraterrestrial hypothesis is more clear-cut and simple. The problem for ETH proponents is finding scientifically valid evidence to back up their claims. The exopolitics movement that has arisen since 2000 assumes the fact that aliens from outer space are visiting us and are in regular contact with our governments. Their evidence relies heavily on rumours and stories from whistleblowers.

As ‘The Pelican’ perceptively notes in Magonia magazine: ‘The notion that the true explanations for sightings that remain unidentified after being investigated by Serious Ufologists is that they are alien craft, [and] is what makes ufology a pseudoscience. It is not just the nuts-and-bolts ETH Serious  Ufologists who are rather flaky, but also those who seek more subtle explanations … all but a very few ufologists do not have a purely objective approach to the subject. And, of course, they usually get away with their dodgy hypotheses and tall stories.’

Certainly, ufologists, whether at the skeptical or believer ends of the spectrum, can easily have a tendency to have ‘dodgy hypotheses’. What is paramount is to look at the evidence itself and to consider the pros and cons of its validity. Unfortunately, many cases are invested with a power that transcends any rational arguments or logical explanations, and they become an established part of the UFO mythology.

What is really needed to confirm the ETH is incontrovertible proof, like an actual flying saucer parked on the White House lawn.


  • Brown, Anthony R. ‘The Decline and Fall of the Psychosocial Empire’ Magonia no 72, October 2000.
  • Evans, Hilary. ‘The Myth of the Authorised Myth’ Magonia no 16, July 1984, at: magonia.haaan.com/2009/myth/.
  • Haines, Richard (ed). UFO Phenomena and the Behavioral Scientist (Scarecrow, USA, 1979).
  • Hendry, Allan. The UFO Handbook (Doubleday, New York, 1979).
  • Hofling, Charles K. ‘Percival Lowell and the Canals of Mars’ British Journal of Medical Psychology vol 37, part 1, 1964.
  • Hufford, David J. The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1982).
  • Jung, Carl. Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (Routledge and Kegan Paul, ondon, 1959).
  • Keel, John. UFOs: Operation Trojan Horse (Abacus, London, 1973).
  • Klass, Philip J. UFOs Explained (Random House, New York, 1974).
  • Miller, Ron. ‘Jules Verne and the Great Airship Scare’ International UFO Reporter vol 12, no 3, May–June 1987.
  • Moravec, Mark. ‘UFOs as Psychological and Parapsychological Phenomena’ in UFOs 1947–1987, compiled and edited by Hilary Evans and John Spencer (Fortean Tomes, London, 1987).
  • Pelican, The. ‘Declassing the Classics Magonia No 98, September 2008’, at: magonia.haaan.com/2011/declassing-the-classics-the-pelican/.
  • ‘Prehistoric Proof’ website, at: pinterest.com/frankjanice/ prehistoric-proof/.
  • Randles, Jenny; Roberts, Andy; and Clarke, David. The UFOs that Never Were (London House, London, 2000).
  • Rogerson, Peter. ‘The Mythology of UFO Events and Interpretations’ Merseyside UFO Bulletin vol 5, no 3, Summer 1972, at: magonia.haaan.com/2008/the-mythology-of-ufo-events-andinterpretations-a-new-examination-peter-rogerson/.
  • Sandell, Roger. ‘Archaeologists and Astronauts’ Merseyside UFO Bulletin vol 6, no 1, July 1973, at: magonia.haaan.com/tag/ancient-astronauts/.
  • Sevilla, Jorge Conesa, PhD. Wrestling with Ghosts: A Personal And Scientific Account Of Sleep Paralysis (Xlibris, 2004).
  • ‘The Sleep Paralysis Project’ website, at: www.thesleepparalysisproject.org/.
  • Spencer, John. Perspectives: A Radical Examination of the Alien Abduction Phenomenon (Futura, London, 1989).
  • SUNlite UFO newsletter, at: home.comcast.net/~tprinty/UFO/SUNlite.htm.
  • Vallée, Jacques. Passport to Magonia: From Folklore toFlying Saucers (Tandem, London, 1975).
  • Von Däniken, Erich. Chariots of the Gods? (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York, 1970)
Excerpted from UFO Investigations Manual: UFO investigations from 1982 to the present dayby Nigel Watson, courtesy of Haynes Publishing.
About the Author
NIGEL WATSON has written for numerous magazines on paranormal subjects, such as Wired, History Today, Flying Saucer Review and UFO magazine. He also runs the website Talking Pictures and is the author of four books: The Alien Deception (2009), The Scareship Mystery (2000), Supernatural Spielberg (1992) and Portraits of Alien Encounters (1990).

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8 Comments on "Explanations For UFOs"

  1. BuzzCoastin | Feb 15, 2014 at 1:02 am |

    one thing exists fer sher
    & that’s the ufo industry:
    conferences, videos, books, recordings
    everything except the ufoz themselves

  2. gustave courbet | Feb 15, 2014 at 2:05 am |

    I didn’t know psycho-sociological phenomena could be tracked on radar…

  3. American Cannibal | Feb 15, 2014 at 9:57 am |



  4. If as QT suggests, space and time are functions of our minds and do not actually exists in any objective sense “out there,” then maybe, some of what we call the UFO phenomena could be explained as some kind of communication or incursion into this reality from a larger reality, of which this is a subset or a part of.
    Perhaps life really is a video game.

    • Adam's Shadow | Feb 15, 2014 at 1:52 pm |

      Ding ding ding!

      I’m on a big Simulation Hypothesis trip lately as a Grand Unified Theory of Everything. The UFOs (if real in any conventional sense of the word) are the programmers, or their avatars. But who knows; the whole phenomenon is ephemeral, like much of life. It’s here, then it’s gone, and we go chasing after it like wisps of smoke in the wind.

      • Yeah, me too. Just finished Tom Campbell’s MBT Trilogy. So glad I found his work. It has really helped me frame many unusual experiences in a way that makes sense. Such a gift.

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