Authors of the Impossible

19 August 2009

ABC's "The Outsiders"

Hi Folks,

I want to say something about last night's "The Outsiders" on ABC. The one-hour special was on the phenomenon of alien abduction. Some of it I found quite well done and sophisticated, particularly the parts with Susan Clancy of Harvard, who wrote a fine book on the subject called ABDUCTED. Other parts I found incredibly simplistic and naive.

Basically, what we had here was yet another "either-or" approach to the subject, as if the phenomenon was EITHER real aliens from another planet abducting people OR the baseless imaginations of the human mind. The treatment of "sleep paralysis" was particularly troublesome here. But what if we do not interpret the alien literally? What if we see the alien abduction as a kind of modern mystical experience and recognize these experiences for what they seem to be, that is, profound paranormal experiences that give us a mythical glimpse into the nature of Mind and Consciousness? Why be so either-or?

Did you notice that the word "paranormal" was thrown around everywhere, but never defined, never explained? And did you notice that no one had any plausible explanation for the light orbs following Stan Romanek around Denver? In Charles Fort's terms, these lightforms were effectively "damned" in the one-hour special, that is, they were offered no explanation.

The Harvard researchers, I think, are correct to hone in on sleep paralysis as one of the keys to the phenomenon, but they are too quick to use this label as if it was a full explanation. I mean, really, what does it explain? Amost nothing, as far as I can tell. It's just an easy label to avoid all the difficult questions, like why such a state would be coordinated with those damned lightforms in the sky. A dream is a dream, but what happens when your dream shows up on a video camera in front of multiple witnesses? Is that a dream too?

Clancy mentioned that she has experienced sleep paralysis. So have I. But it was way, way more than "sleep paralysis" (listen to our first "Impossible Talk" podcast for a discussion of this). So I can speak with some authority here. Basically, I would suggest that sleep paralysis is indeed the physiological context of many alien mystical experiences, but that this does not mean that the physiological state causes these experiences. It may just as well trigger them or allow them to rush in, as many have argued, say, for the function of a car accident and an out-of-body experience. Just because an OBE occurs during the trauma of a car accident does not mean that the accident fully explains the OBE, only that the trauma is a necessary physiological condition for consciousness to temporarily unzip from its complete identification with the body.

Consider the classic discussion of psychedelics and mystical states. Aldous Huxley long ago argued that the human brain may function more like a filter of consciousness than a producer of the same. In this model, then, something like mescaline does not cause altered states of consciousness like OBEs, NDEs, and alien abductions, but rather temporarily suppresses the brain-filter and allows these remarkable states to enter into the person's awareness. In short, the brain may not produce consciousness. It may filter, mediate, or transmit it, rather like a TV set or radio. Sleep paralysis or a car accident, then, may represent something like a dramatic "turning of the channel," that is, to a channel of consciousness that is always there but seldom "picked up" by the normal, socially adjusted brain.

And note that there are "no little people in the TV set" in this model, that is, there is no person in the brain, no self, no soul. That's why no neuroscientist has ever been able to find such things in the brain. You can no more find a self or soul in the brain than you can find the cast of "Seinfeld" in your flat-screen television hanging on the wall. But that hardly means such realities do not exist.

To speak very technically here, sleep paralysis may correlate strongly with alien and mystical experiences, but this does not mean that such a physiological condition causes them. Correlation and causation are two very different things.

Two more points.

First, if you want the finest discussion of sleep paralysis as it relates to folklore and mysticism and that does not fall into these simplistic materialist readings, read David Hufford's THE TERROR THAT COMES IN THE NIGHT. We will try to get David on "Impossible Talk" soon.

Second, I was saddened by the way figures like Dr. Leo Sprinkle and Stan Romanek were treated in the hour. As a fellow academic, I am appalled that Sprinkle was fired for his unconventional research. I do not know the details here, but intellectual freedom is intellectual freedom. Period. A lot more compassion and understanding could have been expressed for both men. If we continue to ridicule brave souls like this, we will get nowhere. We need not, of course, believe everything literally. There is a third way. And it is the way of the author of the impossible.



Blogger DrJanet said...

“. . .a belief in non-physical beings is the most common feature of religions; it may indeed be universal. In fact, . . the idea of non-physical beings has been taken for the very definition of religion itself.” —Steven Mithven (The Prehistory of the Mind)

I missed the TV program. But as a clinician who has worked with close encounter "experiencers" for 15 years, I can confidently say that the EITHER / OR framework is too narrow. But adding a mystical framework is just an extension of one end of the continuum--still tending towards a "projection of the human mind." That, I dispute.

I would far rather extend the continuum in the other direction. Expand your sense of time & space beyond the materialist end-of-the-continuum. Paraphrasing Nithyananda, east Indian sage, who said, when asked about aliens (several years ago): "Yes, they are real, I have been with them. But they cannot live here [on Earth]; this space is too dense."

Nithyananda also said that what most people experience is mere "hallucination," probably meaning "projection." To some extent that is true. But Nithyananda agreed that these are real Beings. Just as the Tibetans believe Nature Spirits--channeled by their Oracles--are real. Just as real as you and I, that is, independently existing (as much as anything can be). In fact, I'd say that so-called aliens are even MORE REAL than you or I. That is, these Beings are definitely more conscious. Beyond the egoic level--who you and I are--is a complete fiction.

In summary, one need not be a reductionist materialist in order to believe that these Beings are "real." The human mind does not produce them, even though the we do interpret their actions within our conceptual frameworks. But linear time & Newtonian space do not define time and space either. Ironic that only mathematicians and physicists take multi-dimensional realities seriously.

Re: Tibetan Nature Spirits, see David Cherniak's documentary "Oracle," which includes the Dalai Lama.

Background: A decade ago, David Cherniak led a "secret" expedition with John Mack (Harvard psychiatrist who worked w/alien abductees) to meet with the Dalai Lama to inquire into the Tibetans' familiarity with these Beings. The response of the Tibetans was in keeping with my view that these Beings offer much more than a mere glimpse into the nature of human mind and consciousness.

September 12, 2009 at 8:21 PM

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