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“The fancy that extraterrestrial life is by definition of a higher order than our own is one that soothes all children, and many writers” – Joan Didion

Hey man, do you see it too?

Hey man, do you see it too?

Our brains seem to function best when under the influence of gravity and when not being bombarded with cosmic radiation.  We’ve spent our entire evolutionary history prior to the last half-century in the warm embrace of Mother Earth, maintaining a good general sense of up and down, and letting the ozone layer filter out most of those nastier interstellar emanations.  It’s our happy place.  Now that we’ve taken to occasionally lofting a few brave souls into orbit, and pondering whether real estate values on Mars justify the expense of colonization, we’ve noticed that once humans get out into the final frontier, things tend to get a little trippy.  NASA’s Human Research Roadmap points out that one of the major risks in the exploration of space is that “Given the extended duration of future missions and the isolated, extreme and confined environments, there is a possibility that (a) adverse behavioral conditions will occur; and (b) mental disorders (DSM-IV–TR) could develop should adverse behavioral conditions be undetected and unmitigated”.  Perhaps this is why human interactions with extraterrestrials are typically surreal.  That is, alien visitors are just plain nuts.

Project Blue Book’s famed Dr. Josef Allen Hynek is generally credited with developing the “Close Encounter” classification system, related to how intimate an interaction with presumed aliens was.  Public awareness of his scale is largely attributable to Steven Spielberg’s 1977 science fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  A close encounter of the “third kind” signifies that a living alien was present in contrast to a UFO with alleged physical effects (The Second Kind), or a distant sighting (The First Kind).  Then there is the Close Encounter of the Fourth Kind, an extension of the Hynek scale, which often involves abduction.  Astronomer, ufologist, and all around smart guy Jaques Vallée maintained that this sort of close encounter was characterized by “cases when witnesses experienced a transformation of their sense of reality” (Vallée, 1998), where humans were not necessarily kidnapped by intergalactic stalkers, but direct contact took on a hallucinatory or absurdist quality.  Your garden variety conspiracy theorist and UFO believer has been known to suggest that aliens deliberately endeavor to make their interactions with our species as dreamlike as possible, so that reports of their bizarre behavior will call into question the sanity of the witness.  If the reported antics of aliens do not seem to befit a sufficiently advanced race of interstellar wayfarers, the logical conclusion would be that somebody has an overactive imagination, and unfilled prescription, or a psychotic break with reality.  Now, it does seem a bit far-fetched that intrepid space beings would come all this way simply to screw with our heads, just as it seems equally straining of logic to assume that everyone who has ever reported otherworldly contact is blindingly ignorant or needs some quiet time in a padded room.  As we are just starting to understand what happens to our consciousness when we spend prolonged periods of time in outer space, and are coming to the conclusion that it can do weird things to our brains, a safer assumption when it comes to seemingly irrational extraterrestrial encounters is that it is them, not us, that need their heads examined.  We’re okay.  They’ve spent too long in their flying saucers.

Astronauts have long reported that one of the functions of coping with long term work in space is that you tend to see stuff that isn’t there.  “One of the most common experiences are frequent hallucinations that, despite sounding ominous, are probably the least concerning when it comes to in-orbit mental health. In the early Apollo missions, astronauts reported regular flashes or streaks of light that seemed to come out of nowhere. During a 2012 mission on the International Space Station, astronaut Don Pettit described these experiences as ‘flashes in my eyes, like luminous dancing fairies’ that could be overlooked during work but would appear strongly ‘in the dark confines of my sleep station, with the droopy eyelids of pending sleep’. These flashes attracted significant scientific attention, and a series of experiments determined that they are caused by cosmic rays: free moving subatomic particles from distant destructing stars. On Earth, most particles are absorbed by the atmosphere, but in space they cause nerve cells in the visual system to produce the ‘dancing fairy’ effect” (Bell, 2014).  Cosmonauts and astronauts have reported phantom smells, strange interpersonal interactions, and a reduction in mental ability after spending too much time locked in an airtight tin can staring down at the Earth.  Add to that mission stress, cabin fever, and just plain getting sick of your crewmates, and most of us would start to get a little crazy.  Heck, many of us get like that without the psychological pressures of space exploration.

Is it any wonder that when the aliens talk to us, it seems like they might be stoned or a few cards short of a deck.  They had to cross light years in their flying saucers.  We start to go nuts when we have to spend a few months in space.  So when Martians land in Newark asking for a bag of manure, since there are no cows on Mars (Gary Wilcox, 1964), or touch down in Eagle River, Wisconsin just to have a cookout and eat pancakes (Joe Simonton, 1961), the truth is you shouldn’t bother calling in the Air Force.  What these oddly-behaving extraterrestrials need is a qualified mental health professional and some compassionate counseling.  They’re just feeling a little funky.  We’ve all had experiences with strange humans, so we shouldn’t feel too put out by wacky alien behaviors to ignore their existence completely, for as Carl Sagan said, “Even if the aliens are short, dour, and sexually obsessed—if they’re here, I want to know about them”.

Bell, Vaughn.  “Isolation and hallucinations: the mental health challenges faced by astronauts”.  The Observer.  October 4, 2014.
Vallée, Jacques. “Physical Analysis in Ten Cases of Unexplained Aerial Objects with Material Samples.” 1998. Journal of Scientific Exploration. Vol. 12, No. 3., pp. 359-375.